Singapore’s air quality in parts of the island reached “unhealthy” levels and it warned of widespread hazy conditions due to forest fires in Indonesia, increasing tension in the region over cross-border air pollution that causes respiratory illness and can slash tourism revenue.
(Bloomberg) — Singapore’s air quality in parts of the island reached “unhealthy” levels and it warned of widespread hazy conditions due to forest fires in Indonesia, increasing tension in the region over cross-border air pollution that causes respiratory illness and can slash tourism revenue.
Singapore’s 24-hour PSI air pollution reading in the east of the island rose as high as 117, according to the National Environment Agency website on Saturday. An index reading between 101 and 200 is deemed “unhealthy,” while a level above 300 is categorized as “hazardous.” Indonesia said seven provinces have declared a state of emergency for land and forest fires, but denied that haze from Indonesia had spread to other countries.
“Up until this morning, we have not detected any transboundary haze,” Laksmi Dewanti, director general of climate change control at the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, said at a press briefing. Satellite imagery on Saturday showed more than 7,700 hotspots — seven times the number recorded a year ago, she said.
A week ago, Malaysia complained smoke from fires in Indonesia’s southern Sumatra and Kalimantan had reached Malaysia, shrouding some areas of the country and causing air quality to drop. Indonesia denied it was the source of the pollution.
The choking smoke from fires is a recurring problem in Southeast Asia, disrupting tourism and, at its worst, causing severe respiratory illness and costing local economies billions of dollars. It mostly originates from natural or man-made fires in Indonesia and Malaysia during the dry season. Many of the blazes result from illegal burning to clear farmland for cash crops such as palm oil, a practice that persists despite years of government efforts to stamp it out.
Indonesia’s foreign ministry said earlier that Malaysia sent a letter to the environment and forestry ministry, describing the latest air quality situation and offering to cooperate on dealing with the forest fires if needed.
Environment Minister Siti Nurbaya said in a phone message that Indonesia has had a systematic prevention and management system in place for forest fires for the past eight years and that no cooperation was needed for now.
The Director General of Environmental Law Enforcement Rasio Ridho Sani said the government has “sealed” 35 plantation areas belonging to Indonesian, Malaysian and Singaporean companies and may revoke permits for those found to be repeat offenders.
Clearing land by burning or failing to take precautions to prevent forest fires can lead to a fine of up to 10 billion rupiah ($640,000), 10 years in prison or deduction of company profits.
READ: Why It’s Another Bad Year for Indonesia Forest Fires: QuickTake
Fires are typically worst at the height of the dry season in August and September, but in El Nino years rains are often delayed, allowing the burning to spread into October and beyond. Almost 3,000 hotspots were detected in Indonesia in mid-September, with Sumatra and the Indonesian part of Borneo island, called Kalimantan, accounting for more than two thirds, according to the National Disaster Mitigation Agency.
During the 2015 strong El Nino season, about 2.6 million hectares burned and the haze lingered for weeks, causing more than 100,000 premature deaths, according to researchers at Harvard and Columbia universities. In the El Nino of 1997, almost twice as much land burned.
Indonesia’s weather bureau has said the wet season may be delayed this year until late October or November in Sumatra and Kalimantan, and even till December in some parts of the country.
–With assistance from Janine Phakdeetham.
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