The SIIA recently convened a briefing for NGOs on the Singapore government’s efforts in transboundary haze prevention in Southeast Asia. The briefing was conducted by the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources (MEWR)/National Environment Agency (NEA) who kindly agreed to share insights and current developments beyond the news headlines.
The SIIA briefing – chaired by SIIA chairman Simon Tay – is part of its haze prevention programme, to promote information sharing and establish a common basis of understanding amongst civil society actors and concerned individuals in Singapore.
NEA officials explained Singapore's efforts in managing the haze pollution since the highest PSI level (150 in the "unhealthy" range) recorded on 7 Oct this year. Under the Haze Action Plan, the inter-agency Haze Task Force chaired by the NEA since 1994, updated their measures and procedures, such as the air cleaning devices list on the NEA website, and began providing 3 hr PSI readings to the public, and constant haze updates to the press.
NEA officials also informed the group that Singapore had been providing satellite pictures of hotspots and co-ordinates of hotspots daily to Jakarta and Riau Province to assist the Indonesian authorities in locating the fires on the ground and deploying officers to put out the fires. This year, Singapore also offered the deployment of a C-130 aircraft for cloud-seeding operations in Indonesia, although this was declined by the Indonesian government. At the 10th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting on the Environment (AMME) held in November 2006 in Cebu, Philippines, both Singapore and Indonesia pledged US$50,000 each to the ASEAN Haze Fund. Brunei, Malaysia and Thailand also agreed to contribute to the fund, subject to approval by their governments. In addition, Singapore also accepted Indonesia's proposal of adopting one or more fire-prone districts/regencies in the country to enhance capacity to deal with land and forest fires. Singapore has agreed to work with a regency in Jambi Province, in Riau.
Environment ministers from Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand also endorsed a comprehensive Plan of Action to deal with smoke haze issues in the short and long-term at the 1st Meeting of the Sub-Regional Ministerial Steering Committee (MSC) on Transboundary Haze Pollution, also held in November 2006.
Some comments from the Q&A segment:
Q. Are there any new developments apart from preventive measures such as early warning and cloud seeding efforts?
MEWR/NEA: Present fire fighting efforts have been emphasising prevention over suppression. A major milestone this year is the speed and efficiency at which the five affected states can rally together in the Steering Committee to operationalise the comprehensive Plan of Action. The new model of adopting fire-prone regencies is a good one, but the issue lies with funding.
Q. Is there a baseline for the government’s PSI measurement?
MEWR/NEA: The PSI calculation is based on research conducted in the United States, and it accounts for prolonged health-based impact of the haze pollution. Without the haze, the PSI reads around 20-40 on a normal day.
Q. Are there other players from the Indonesian government involved in the haze prevention efforts?
MEWR/NEA: The Ministry of Forestry also participates in the discussion, along with agencies based in the agricultural sector. The Environment Ministry also holds its own internal workshop before the regional meetings. The Indonesian government makes an effort to include other stakeholders.
Q. Have there been efforts to explore the option of bringing the major pulp & paper and oil palm companies together to identify best practices and codes of conduct?
MEWR/NEA: The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) based in Malaysia developed a Code of Conduct last year in a meeting in Singapore. The problem lies with the fact that not all companies are included in such discussions. The Indonesian government however, has agreed to engage the major companies involved in the plantations from which the burning practices occur.
Q. There appears to be a large number of non-Indonesian companies, especially in Borneo. Are there any incentives for companies based in other countries to prevent the fires from occurring?
MEWR/NEA: The companies are in fact Indonesian as the parent companies would set up subsidiaries there, even if the headquarters are based in countries such as Malaysia and Singapore. The problem of enforcement also lies with catching the culprits red-handed. The enforcement teams carry out their operations often at the risk of their lives, as they have to reach the precise fire locations in order to prosecute. Such difficulties render the need for international assistance. The problem is also exacerbated by companies not being forthcoming and changing their names regularly to avoid prosecution.
Q. There are contradictions in hotspot data against zero-burning claims by the companies. Is there a role for non-state actors (citizens, media, businesses, investors) to play in countering such a situation?
MEWR/NEA: Yes. Local environmental NGOs in Indonesia such as WALHI are active on the ground. Other NGOs such as Netherlands-based Wetlands International and the Global Environment Centre (GEC) based in Malaysia have offered to conduct a peatland management project. The focus on management (and not simply investigation) is a possible area for NGOs to play a role.
Q. How much credibility does the government give to data provided by NGOs, for instance, do inter-ministerial negotiations take into account NGO findings and recommendations?
MEWR/NEA: Yes, but it is up to the relevant authorities to determine what and how much information to use. The Singapore government has established contact with the Jambi authorities, but present developments remain at infancy stage - this is a possible channel for NGOs to be involved. The work of Wetlands International and GEC in Sumatra and Kalimantan has been acknowledged by Indonesia. The sub-regional technical working group is also open to offers for information by NGOs.
Q. Singapore views the haze issue as the number one priority, but this is different for Indonesia. Should Singapore consider working with Indonesia as a team to counter the haze pollution?
MEWR/NEA: The aim is not to shame Indonesia, but rather work towards seeking international collaboration to tackle the haze problem together.
Q. Is there a timeline set for implementation of actions to counter the haze pollution?
MEWR/NEA: The haze is a long-term problem, and present efforts are focused on operationalising the comprehensive Plan of Action, which is difficult to work in a precise time-frame for at the moment.
Q. Have there been any studies conducted on the economic impact of the haze, along the lines of the British government-led Stern Review on Climate Change?
MEWR/NEA: Previous studies on the economic impact of the haze have been conducted by the Economy and Environment Program for Southeast Asia (EEPSEA) in 1997/98. NTU Economics Professor Euston Quah has also provided estimates for Singapore.
Q. Can information provided by governments be translated on the ground for people to understand the situation more clearly? Would NGOs’ public outreach efforts in this area receive support from the government?
MEWR/NEA: There has been a flurry of government meetings, and NGOs have sought to inform the public via Op-Eds in the local newspapers. But often, those reports lack details. Dialogues such as this briefing would keep the NGOs more informed of the issues beyond the headlines, and clarify misconceptions.
During the Q&A segment, SIIA Director Leigh Pasqual shared the SIIA’s haze prevention programme, in the following four areas to promote public and policy advocacy for tackling the haze issue:
* Study on Economic Costs and Impact on Public Health and Global Climate Change
* Advocacy within ASEAN Forums
* Developing Partnerships for Implementation in Indonesia
* Engaging with Private Sector to Promote Corporate Social Responsibility
Session chair Simon Tay also added that the SIIA has already been in touch with NGOs in the region, including the Global Environment Centre (Malaysia) and WWF-Indonesia, who has contacts in Jambi to offer assistance to the Singapore government’s work there. Simon also shared that the SIIA is happy to hear comments or suggestions from the NGOs on opportunities for collaboration.