Indonesian Forest Fires Set Singapore Smog Record, Raise Concerns Over Safe Navigation

A vessel travels on the haze blanketed sea along East Coast Park as the pollutant standards index (PSI) hits above 300 in Singapore June 21, 2013. REUTERS/Tim Chong
A vessel travels on the haze blanketed sea along East Coast Park as the pollutant standards index (PSI) hits above 300 in Singapore June 21, 2013. REUTERS/Tim Chong

reuters logoBy Kanupriya Kapoor and Michael Taylor

JAKARTA, June 21 (Reuters) – Indonesia deployed military planes on Friday to fight forest fires that blanketed neighbouring Singapore in record levels of hazardous smog for a third day in one of Southeast Asia’s worst air-pollution crises.

As Singaporeans donned face masks and pulled children from playgrounds and Malaysia closed schools in the south, the deliberately-lit fires grew bigger in some areas. Whipped up by winds, the blazes added to fears over health problems and diplomatic tension in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.

“The winds are picking up and the weather isn’t very good at the moment, so the fires in some places are getting bigger,” said Gunawan, a firefighter who like many Indonesians goes by one name. “We are working as hard as possible to control the fires…but we’re facing difficult conditions.”

Indonesia blamed eight companies, including Jakarta-based PT Sinar Mas Agro Resources and Technology (SMART) and Asia Pacific Resources International (APRIL), for the fires. The government, which said it would take action against any company responsible for the disaster, is expected to name the rest of the firms on Saturday.

“The majority of hotspots in Riau (province) are inside APRIL and Sinar Mas concessions,” senior presidential aide Kuntoro Mangkusubroto told Reuters.

An APRIL statement said the company and third-party suppliers had a “strict no-burn policy” for all concessions in Indonesia.

An analysis of satellite maps and government data by Reuters and the think tank World Resources Institute also revealed spot fires on land licensed to Singapore-listed First Resources Ltd and Indonesia’s Provident Agro.

The analysis did not reveal the cause of the fires or who was at fault.

A spokeswoman for Golden Agri Resources, SMART’s Singapore-listed parent, said the company knew of no hotspots on its concessions.

Illegal burning on Indonesia’s Sumatra island typically takes place in the June to September dry season to clear space for palm oil plantations. This year’s fires are unusually widespread and the haze is the worst in Singapore’s history.

Singapore’s government has warned it could last weeks.

Indonesia has earmarked around 200 billion rupiah ($20 million) to handle the disaster. Seven military aircraft were deployed for water bombings and rain seeding.

“HAZARDOUS”

Hospitals in Dumai and Bengkalis in Indonesia’s Riau province recorded increases in cases of asthma, lung, eye and skin problems, health official Arifin Zainal said.

The Dumai airport remained closed for a third day.

In Singapore, the number of residents wearing face masks rose markedly as the pollution standards index (PSI) climbed to a new record of 401 at midday, a level which health authorities consider potentially life-threatening for the elderly. The PSI moderated later to an “unhealthy” 142 by mid-evening.

“Basically, what a ‘hazardous’ PSI level means is that the pollution will cause damage to the lining of the breathing tube,” said Dr Kenneth Chan, consultant respiratory physician at Singapore’s Gleneagles Medical Centre. “If the lining of the breathing tube is damaged, it will make the patient more vulnerable to various infections.”

In Malaysia, southern Johor state was the worst affected, with pollution readings remaining in the “hazardous” category.

COSTLY FIRE

Air pollution has long been a serious problem in many Asian cities such as New Delhi, Beijing and Hong Kong but it is only an issue in Singapore when the smoke blows in from Sumatra.

According to one method of measuring pollution, the one authorities use in China’s capital, Singapore’s air was much worse than Beijing’s on Friday, according to state agency data.

The cost of the current haze for Singapore could be hundreds of millions of dollars, brokerage CLSA said in a report.

It said that in 2006, when the pollution index reached 150, it was estimated the haze cost $50 million and in 1997 it was $300 million. CLSA said the 1997 and 2006 figures seemed low when considering the direct and indirect cost of prolonged haze.

Workers in Singapore could still be seen toiling at some construction sites despite the elevated levels. TheSingapore government has so far only issued only broad guidelines about employers having to ensure the health and safety of workers.

“Even as our government rails against the corporate interests in Sumatra who are willing to sacrifice human health for profits, the Ministry of Manpower still isn’t practicing what they preach by allowing construction companies inSingapore to make their workers slog through the smog,” the Online Citizen, a socio-political website, said in a commentary.

SAFETY OF NAVIGATION

The Singapore Shipping Association on Friday raised concerns over the safe navigation of ships through Straits of Malacca and Singapore due to reduced visibility.

“The Straits of Malacca and Singapore are among the busiest and narrowest shipping lanes in the world,” said Daniel Tan, Executive Director of SSA. “Reduced visibility in such heavy shipping traffic will definitely affect the safe navigation of ships in the Straits. The passage through the Straits is further complicated by the many smaller barter trading ships and also passenger ships in cross-Strait traffic.”

On any given day, over 140 ships, such very large oil tankers, container ships, bulk carriers and cruise liners, ply through the Straits. There are also a countless number of smaller crafts like passenger ferries, tugs and barges making frequent cross-Straits voyages in the littoral states of Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia.

“In the event of any unfortunate accident, human lives and the marine environment will be at risk, especially if it involves a fully laden VLCC,” added Tan. “The oil spillage from the tanker can have serious consequences not only on the marine life in the Straits but also affect the livelihood of fishermen and those who depend on the tourist industry.”

(c) 2013 Thomson Reuters, Click For Restrictions