ASEAN needs more urgency, political resolve to solve haze problem: Masagos

Haze seen along the Singapore River on 19 September 2019. (PHOTO: Dhany Osman / Yahoo News Singapore)
Haze seen along the Singapore River on 19 September 2019. (FILE PHOTO: Dhany Osman / Yahoo News Singapore)

SINGAPORE — ASEAN countries need greater urgency and political resolve, as well as closer cooperation among stakeholders, if they are to make progress towards being a haze-free region, said Masagos Zulkifli, Minister for the Environment and Water Resources (MEWR).

The minister was responding to questions on Monday (7 October) by Members of Parliament who had wanted to know the action plan moving forward to help neighbouring countries prevent or reduce the hot spots for the long term, and whether the 2014 Transboundary Haze Pollution Act (THPA) has been successful in mitigating the annual threat.

360 million tonnes of carbon dioxide released

In his written reply, Masagos said that in this year’s transboundary haze situation, fires in Indonesia have released 360 million tonnes of carbon dioxide since August, more than Spain’s emissions for the whole of 2018.

The key factor in tackling the haze problem is to prevent the fires from starting in the first place, the minister added.

“Errant individuals and companies whose actions jeopardise the health and lives of people in ASEAN and which set back our efforts to fight climate change must be held accountable. Strong enforcement action must be taken against perpetrators and to deter others,” he said.

Masagos added that Singapore recognises Indonesia President Joko Widodo’s personal attention and efforts in tackling this problem. As early as April this year, he had written to his Indonesian counterpart to convey Singapore’s readiness to assist Indonesia in tackling land and forest fires.

When the haze situation worsened last month, Singapore twice wrote diplomatic notes to Indonesia convey concerns about the escalation of hot spots, as well as to offer fire-fighting assets to help deal with it. The National Environment Agency’s (NEA) chief executive officer Tan Meng Dui also wrote to his Indonesian counterpart requesting information on all companies suspected of intentionally burning land, including Singapore-registered ones.

Meeting to enhance implementation of agreement

Masagos said that the 10 ASEAN countries will meet in Cambodia this week to discuss how to further enhance the implementation of the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution.

Senior Minister of State Amy Khor will attend the meeting, and Masagos said she will “reiterate our concerns about the detrimental effects of haze, its impact on climate change and global emissions of greenhouse gas, and urge all ASEAN Member States to take strong action to prevent the recurrence of haze”.

As for enforcement of the THPA, Masagos said that during the two-month-long 2015 haze episode, NEA issued legal notices under the act to six companies to take immediate measures to stop the fires that caused haze that affected Singapore.

Two of the companies have explained that they were no longer associated with the affected lands. As for the other four companies, their cases are still open.

“A director of one of these companies was served a THPA Notice to be interviewed by NEA when he was in Singapore. When he failed to turn up for the interview, a court warrant was obtained to secure his attendance when he next enters Singapore,” Masagos said.

“NEA is on the lookout for other directors of these companies, and will similarly require them to assist in the investigations when they are in Singapore... We hope that the Indonesian government will work with Singapore and other countries in the region by sharing substantiated information that could help identify companies suspected of causing fires.”

According to a study by the Nanyang Technological University, the estimated cost to Singapore of the 2015 haze episode was $1.83 billion – or 0.45 per cent of its Gross Domestic Product – taking into account factors such as health cost, loss in productivity, and impact on tourism and business.

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