Economic fears return as haze chokes Southeast Asia

A view of Kuala Lumpur City is seen covered by haze. — Reuters pic
A view of Kuala Lumpur City is seen covered by haze. — Reuters pic

KUALA LUMPUR, March 6 ― Forest fires brought on by drought in Malaysia and Indonesia fouled air quality to unhealthy levels in parts of Southeast Asia, stoking concerns of a repeat of the haze that engulfed the region in June.

Malaysia’s air pollutant index climbed as high as 137 in Port Klang on March 3, with parts of Kuala Lumpur and the states of Selangor and Negri Sembilan recording levels above 100, classified as unhealthy. In Singapore, which had the driest month in February since records began in 1869, the pollution index on March 4 reached 56, considered moderate. The reading in Indonesia’s Riau province city of Dumai topped 700 the same day, the Jakarta Post reported.

The region has been plagued for decades by periodic smog caused by ash drifting from Sumatra, with regular disputes over responsibility. Lawmakers in Singapore, which suffered its worst pollution on record in June, raised concerns in Parliament yesterday on the region’s progress in tackling the haze issue, while Malaysia started cloud-seeding to induce rain.

Southeast Asians “want their local governments or their central government to move ahead and start negotiating rather than after the fact,” said Vishnu Varathan, an economist at Mizuho Bank Ltd. in Singapore. “Their point being, we’ve watched this movie before, so spare me the car chase and let’s get to the punchline.”

Joint efforts

Leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations approved a joint haze monitoring system in October to identify fires such as those in Indonesia that led to hazardous pollution levels in Singapore and Malaysia last year. The system involves sharing digitized land-use maps and concession maps of fire-prone areas that cause haze, according to a Singapore government statement at the time.

“Progress on this front has not been rapid,” Singapore Foreign Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam said about the haze monitoring system accord in Parliament yesterday. “We have not yet been able to implement the HMS, even though the system is ready, because the other parties have yet to agree to do so.”

Parties representing almost two-thirds of Indonesia’s parliament have agreed to ratify a Southeast Asian treaty on haze pollution, Channel NewsAsia reported March 3. Two parties opposed it, citing concerns that allowing firefighters from other countries would violate Indonesia’s sovereignty, according to the report.

A draft bill on ratification will likely be tabled in parliament after the general election on April 9, the Jakarta Post reported on March 4.

Mask stockpiles

This week’s haze prompted Yee Jenn Jong, Non-Constituency Member of Parliament, to query Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim, the Ministry of Health’s parliamentary secretary, about Singapore’s readiness to protect its people from the haze.

Ibrahim said retailers have about 280,000 N95 masks in their inventory and there’s a national stockpile of 16 million of the masks made by 3M Co.

Mask stockpiles have increased after Singapore’s Pollutant Standards Index jumped to a record last year. The PSI reached 401 on June 21, a level deemed hazardous where outdoor activity should be avoided, according to the National Environment Agency.

The dry season started early on the island of Sumatra, and there was no rain in Riau in January and February, Indonesia’s Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency said on March 4. Parts of the Riau province, Indonesia’s main palm-oil growing area, may get some relief with light showers today and tomorrow, the agency said yesterday. The dry season is expected to increase to cover more than a quarter of the archipelago by next month, with a weak El Nino effect to determine how long it will last, the agency said.

Water rationing

Cloud-seeding in Malaysia will continue until mid-March, when “the weather pattern will change to inter-monsoon season and we should have natural rain in the country,” Azhar Ishak, director of the Meteorological Department’s atmospheric science and cloud-seeding division, said in an interview yesterday.

Areas around Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital, started water rationing last month. Singapore, which had a record 27 days without rain from January 13, expects the dry weather to persist through the first half of March. In Riau, officials declared a state of emergency on February 25 through March 12 because of smoke from the forest fires.

In Malaysia, the government is preparing funding to help Selangor state nationalise water assets in the region surrounding the capital. Water rationing, which began in parts of Selangor this week after the drought drained reservoirs, will extend to 431,617 households, the Star reported on its website, citing Malaysia’s water services commission.

Northeast monsoon

Malaysia supplies water to Singapore, which consumes about 480 million US gallons a day. The nation gets its water from the Malaysian state of Johor and draws on local reservoirs, its water-recycling and desalination plants, according to the national water agency.

Southeast Asia is under the influence of the Northeast Monsoon, which brings dry and stable air from the South China Sea and lessens the likelihood of rainfall, according to Winston Chow, an assistant professor of geography at the National University of Singapore.

The dry spell “should end within the next couple of weeks, and we will transition to the inter-monsoon period probably mid- to late March,” Chow said via e-mail.

The challenge for Malaysia and Indonesia is to enforce a ban on using fire to clear plantations. While a push to get the biggest plantation owners to implement no-burn policies has started to take effect, the efforts have been thwarted by owners of small plantations ignoring the law.


Sinar Mas Group, APRIL and First Resources Ltd. are among companies that are affiliated to or are buyers linked to plantation concessions with fires, according to a March 3 report by World Resources Institute, a non-governmental organisation, citing fire NASA satellite data from the previous two weeks. Pulpwood plantations had the most number of fire alerts, while more than half of the fires were burning on land managed by oil palm, timber, and logging companies, it said.

APRIL pledged 600 firefighters, three helicopters and 30 water pumps to help the Indonesian government combat blazes, according to an e-mailed statement on March 4.

APRIL, which said it imposes a strict ban on burning to protect its plantations, also introduced an online service to track forest fires in its Sumatra plantations this week. The company said fires ignited in adjacent forests occasionally spread to APRIL land.

Harsh punishments

Plantation companies are “no longer doing that, because the consequences are very harsh punishments,” Fadhil Hasan, executive director of the Indonesian Palm Oil Association, told reporters at a conference in Kuala Lumpur on March 4, referring to burning. “Even if it happens with smallholders, it’s hard to tell where it’s originally started. It’s possible it started from outside the farm then spread into the plantation.”

Malaysia and Indonesia account for 86 per cent of palm oil output, according to the US Agriculture Department.

Palm oil, the world’s most-used edible oil, posted its biggest monthly advance since October last month, gaining 10.7 per cent. Futures rose 1.5 per cent to RM2,831 a metric tonne yesterday, the highest since September 2012.

“The national sport then was PSI watching,” said Varathan, referring to the record haze levels in Singapore last year. “We’re more acutely conscious of the fact that air quality can deteriorate quite quickly and at one stage it was quite alarming.” ― Bloomberg

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