Clearing the Air on the Haze – A Hazy New Year?

Haze

“As any geographer would attest to, the haze itself might be dull in sight, but insight into the haze is surely never boring.”

The Straits Times reported on October 19th 2015 that the haze could persist until 20161. A researcher from the Centre for International Forestry Research was quoted as saying that it might very well last until the final month of 2015 or the first month of next year. Unsurprisingly, many Singaporeans might wonder why we are to bear the brunt of the haze for a longer period than our squeaky clean and ‘sterile’ respiratory airways are normally accustomed to. Amongst the reasons for the persistence of the haze are factors of a geographical nature.

The seasonal monsoons experienced in this part of the world that straddles the Equator are the main culprits. In June 2013, the worst haze in Singapore’s meteorological history was recorded. The southwest monsoon was the main cause of the haze as winds blowing from Sumatra to Singapore carried a comparatively higher concentration of particulate matter (PM) particles with them2. In March 2014, the haze was back again – but this time, the northeast monsoon was the primary cause of the public’s ire. Its northeasterly winds were retreating back northwards3, accompanying the gradually moving Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) with the approach of warmer temperatures in the northern hemisphere. Now, in October 2015, however, one would expect a taming of the haze as the northeast monsoon comes to our rescue – to rid us of the prevailing southwesterly winds that have been carrying too many PM particles4 with frequencies greater than comfort ordinarily affords. However, in any given locality, the replacement of the southwest monsoon by the northeast monsoon during the inter-monsoon period is a gradual process5 that requires patience on the part of the people who would be expected to relish in this seasonal change.

SST

Diagram 1: Sea Surface Temperature anomalies across the tropical Pacific (22nd October 2015) enable us to visualise the temperature disparities across the Pacific Ocean that drive the El Niño Southern Oscillation. Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), United States.


This time, however, hope for clearer skies might be further afield than initially expected due to the current cycle of the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) being experienced in our part of the world. The ENSO is brought about by cross-longitudinal changes in oceanic water circulation that results in a change in temperatures across oceans (Diagram 1). In the case of the eastern margins of the Pacific Ocean, warmer sea surface temperatures bring higher rainfall to South American countries such as Chile. The corollary to this is that Singapore and the rest of Southeast Asia that lie along the western margins of the Pacific Ocean experience drier conditions brought about by easterly winds rid of moisture6. The ENSO occurs every few years and lasts for variable periods of time7. Drier conditions that may exacerbate forest fires in Indonesia due to the persistence of the ENSO are the reason cited by geographers and meteorologists as to why the haze might continue up until January 2016. It is worth noting that this is certainly not the first time the ENSO and Indonesian forest fires made for a fearsome combination. In 1997, the ENSO brought about forest fires in Kalimantan, Indonesia that emitted a thick aerosol plume, forcing the shutting down of airports in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.

There might exist a commonly held misconception in the Singaporean psyche – that our country does not experience seasonal changes in weather patterns. We do. There is also perhaps a feeling amongst those who are uninitiated with the geography of weather and climate that compared to life in temperate countries, living in Singapore makes for a boring existence due to the high year-round temperatures and rainfall experienced here where snow can only be artificially manufactured in air-conditioned enclosures and where tomorrow’s weather must surely be as mundane as that of any other day in the year. On the contrary, our susceptibility to seasonal weather patterns has impacts on our daily lives that are more real than one might imagine, given the right conditions (in this case, an anthropogenic condition imposed upon us by our neighbours which is being heightened in its effect by physical conditions). As any geographer would attest to, the haze itself might be dull in sight, but insight into the haze is surely never boring.


References:

[1] The Straits Times. (2015). Hazy new year: South-east Asia set to suffer for months as Indonesia fails to douse fires. (2015, October 19). Retrieved from http://www.straitstimes.com/asia/se-asia/hazy-new-year-south-east-asia-set-to-suffer-for-months-as-indonesia-fails-to-douse.

[2] Velasco, E. & Rastan, S. (2015). Air quality in Singapore during the 2013 smoke-haze episode over the Strait of Malacca: Lessons learned. Sustainable Cities and Society, 17, 122-131.

[3] Meteorological Service Singapore. (2014). Update of Regional Weather and Smoke Haze for April 2014. Singapore: Government of Singapore. Retrieved from http://wip.weather.gov.sg/wip/pp/ssops/reparch/apr14.pdf.

[4] Ministry of Foreign Affairs. (2015). Press Statement: Singapore Registers Haze Concerns with Indonesia. (2015, September 10). Retrieved from http://www.mfa.gov.sg/content/mfa/overseasmission/jakarta/press_statements_speeches/2015/201509/Singapore_Registers_Haze_Concerns_With_Indonesia.html.

[5] ASEAN Specialised Meteorological Centre. (2015). Update of Regional Weather and Smoke Haze for September 2015. Singapore: Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Retrieved from http://asmc.asean.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/Sep15.pdf.

[6] Cane, M. (2005). The evolution of El Niño, past and future. Earth and Planetary Science Letters, 230, 227-240.

[7] Chen, D. & Cane, M.A. (2008). El Niño prediction and predictability. Journal of Computation Physics, 227, 3625-3640.

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Hazy Days

hdb clouds

 

Geography has been in the news again. Singapore has been, in recent days, experiencing its worst haze in two decades due to forest fires in Sumatra, Indonesia. The haze is a prime example of how Geography has an impact on public health that is not always easy to alleviate quickly, especially when not many contingency plans exist on the part of the Government. This, in turn, has led people to call for policy planners to place greater emphasis on preparing for foreseeable environmental problems such as the annual transboundary haze.

The haze, itself, is a result of a combination of atmospheric conditions involving the South Westerlies (surface winds caused by the deflective effect of the Coriolis force and other forces during the South West Monsoon season). Moreover, the orographic effect provided by the Sumatran highlands has brought about anomalous dry conditions in Singapore, permitting the haze to persist.

Much has been said about who is to blame and the public seems to be obsessed with being aware of the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) levels on an hourly basis. While the government has pledged to find long-term solutions to the issue of the haze, not many concrete policies have been announced yet.

The following is a letter that I wrote last year in JC2 with two of my classmates in Temasek Junior College as part of a General Paper assignment on the transboundary haze. We were tasked to write a letter to a minister to suggest and evaluate solutions to the haze. The letter, of course, was never sent as that was not a requirement of the assignment. Here it goes:

 

Tan Si En

Yap Zhi Jiun

Yudhishthra Nathan

Temasek Junior College

22 Bedok South Road

Singapore 469278

 

16th July 2012

 

Dr Vivian Balakrishnan

Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources
40 Scotts Road
#24-00 Environment Building
Singapore 228231

 

RE: Mitigating Indonesian Forest Fires

Dear Sir,

We refer to your reply in Parliament to a question tabled by Nominated Member of Parliament Mr Nicholas Fang on the 14th of May 2012 regarding the outlook for the haze situation in Singapore and Southeast Asia, caused by the forest fires in Indonesia. While we commend the Government’s existing efforts in tackling the problem, we would like to suggest other ways in which the Ministry could go about addressing the haze issue arising from the annual Indonesian forest fires. It is our belief that a two-pronged approach would be the best way in which problems such as the haze can be nipped in the bud. On the one hand, prevention of the forest fires altogether would likely prove to be a worthwhile cause in the long-term as this would eliminate the source of the haze. This may be done by discouraging slash-and-burn techniques employed by farmers and timber companies. On the other hand, however, we recognise taking measures to contain the fires would additionally reduce our susceptibility to being affected by the haze. Hence, all stakeholders, from the companies to the individuals that cause the fires, need to be engaged in our efforts to improve environmental conditions while maintaining a good diplomatic relationship with Indonesia.

Companies carrying out their operations in Indonesia have a significant role in contributing to the clearing of the Indonesian forests through the forest fires. Since Singapore is Indonesia’s third largest trading partner and many of those companies have their headquarters based in Singapore, Singapore could review trading regulations such that the timber companies are discouraged to carry out their activities through ecologically unfriendly methods, especially the clearing of forests by burning. Singapore could reduce corporation and import taxes for timber companies which are able to provide evidence of programmes that they have implemented to prevent the burning of the forests. Through such incentives, companies such as Cargill with palm operations in Indonesia would make an effort to use methods other than burning to clear the forests. These new regulations could reduce the occurrence of forest fires set by companies, ultimately reducing possibilities of haze affecting Singapore, hence reducing tension between Singapore and Indonesia due to its non-confrontational approach. The potential loss in revenue from the taxes is a worthwhile sacrifice in exchange for the improvement of environmental conditions.

In the case where preventive measures are not as successful as expected and the conflict between Singapore and Indonesia worsens, mediation should be one of the approaches to relieve the tension between the two countries. A mediation programme should be set up by ASEAN whereby all ASEAN member countries will be required to attend mediation sessions when conflicts arise due to differing opinions on matters regarding haze, forest fires and other environment-related issues. This mediation programme would be complementary to the ASEAN Transboundary Haze Pollution Agreement where all nations are required to reduce haze pollution as well as the ASEAN Vision 2020 towards a cleaner and greener ASEAN. Mediation is important in maintaining the relationships of countries within ASEAN since it is also a non-confrontational approach and may not significantly affect or worsen relationships between the countries. Furthermore, ASEAN can be resourceful in gathering solutions from all member countries so that the problem of haze and forest fires within the region may be effectively resolved. However, mediation does not solve the haze problems in the short term as it is a slow and bureaucratic process, especially if some nations are uncooperative. As such, even though mediation can be used to solve conflicts that arise due to haze problems, other more direct approaches on handling the matter should be implemented as well.

Besides mitigating forest fires through the use of bilateral and regional platforms, international Non-Government Organizations such as the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) could be an excellent platform in raising awareness on the effect of forest fires among the poor subsistence farmers in Indonesia. The Ministry of Environment and Water Resources in Singapore could collaborate with the Indonesian Ministry of Environment to initiate programmes to train volunteers from these NGOs in educating farmers. Such an education programme would entail teaching the farmers about the control and management of forest fires to prevent their spread, the suitable period of burning if they have no choice but to continue burning as well as the dangers of dumping flammable materials in the forests. NGOs could also designate a week in the year to be an Anti-Forest Fire Week – which can they can slowly expand over months, perhaps – to curb forest fires. Besides this, NGOs could join hands with the local farmers in an effort to carry out afforestation. Since these subsistence farmers have been carrying out slash-and-burn when their previous farmland had been deemed infertile after prolong cultivation of crops, NGOs could encourage farmers to fallow their land by ploughing and leaving the land unseeded and uncultivated for a season or more. During the period of fallowing, farmers could take up other jobs such as helping in afforestation efforts. This will not only reduce the occurrence of forest fires but also inculcate responsibility and good environmental values in the farmers. Even though the actions of poor subsistence farmers account for only 5% of the forest fires annually, it is of utmost importance to raise their awareness of the negative effects that forest fires can have regionally.

In conclusion, it would be beneficial to recognise that there are several ways in which the issue of forest fires can be dealt with in a sustainable manner that will not cause conflict between Singapore and Indonesia. By assuring Indonesia that the Government of Singapore is prepared to render assistance to them in various ways, our strategic partnership with Indonesia can only be strengthened. We hope that you will seriously consider our proposals and we look forward to receiving a favourable reply.

Thank you!

 

Yours sincerely,

Tan Si En

Yap Zhi Jiun

Yudhishthra Nathan

(Civics Group 25/11 of Temasek Junior College)