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Singapore pledges to pursue companies behind smog
by Staff Writers
Singapore (AFP) June 22, 2013

Indonesia deploys aircraft as Singapore haze hits record
Jakarta (AFP) June 21, 2013 - Indonesia deployed aircraft Friday to artificially create rain in a bid to douse raging fires that have choked Singapore with smog, which is hitting record-breaking levels that pose a threat to the elderly and the ill.

At a late-night emergency meeting, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono ordered disaster officials to "immediately mobilise all the country's resources" to extinguish the fires on Sumatra island that have created vast palls of smoke.

Singapore's worst environmental crisis in more than a decade has seen the acrid smoke creep into people's flats and cloak residential blocks as well as downtown skyscrapers, and the island's prime minister has warned it could last weeks.

Indonesia's national disaster agency said that three helicopters carrying cloud-seeding equipment, which chemically induces rain, had been sent to Riau province, where vast swathes of carbon-rich peatland are burning.

Two planes were also there and the agency planned to send another five, said agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho. The aircraft would use cloud-seeding and would also water-bomb the blazes, he said.

Firefighters on the ground have struggled to put out the blazes, which are burning under the surface of the peat.

Emergency workers tackling blazes in Bengkalis district, the worst hit area, were "overwhelmed" and unable to cope, Ahmad Saerozi, the head of the natural resources conservation agency in the province, told AFP.

"We have been fighting fires 24 hours a day for two weeks," he said, adding that aircraft must "drop water as soon as possible. We can't do this alone".

As Indonesia stepped up its fire-fighting efforts, Singapore's smog index hit the critical 400 level, making it potentially life-threatening to the ill and elderly people, according to a government monitoring site.

The all-time record level was reached at 11:00 am (0300 GMT) on Friday after a rapid rise in the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI). It had fallen back to 143 by 5:00 pm (0900 GMT).

According to Singapore government guidelines, sustained PSI average levels above 400 on a 24-hour basis "may be life-threatening to ill and elderly persons".

Before the latest crisis which erupted on Monday, the previous Singapore air pollutant index high was 226, recorded in September 1997.

That episode cost the Southeast Asian region billions of dollars and also resulted from vast amounts of haze from Indonesia, where slash-and-burn farming generates heavy smoke during the dry season that begins in June.

Parts of Malaysia close to Singapore have also been severely affected by the smog this week.

The haze crisis has had a dramatic impact on life in Singapore, with the city-state's residents scaling back their activities in a bid to protect themselves.

Fast-food deliveries have been cancelled, the army has suspended field training, commuters are wearing medical masks, and economists are warning that the smog could have an impact on the rich city-state's economy.

Singapore's top Islamic authority even allowed local Muslims to skip Friday prayers, as thick haze continued to drift in from the world's most populous Muslim-majority nation.

Vivian Balakrishnan, Singapore's minister for environment and water resources, held emergency talks with his counterpart in Jakarta on Friday and called for the city-state and Indonesia to work together to solve the "urgent problem".

Singapore has been ramping up pressure on Indonesia to take more action -- but Jakarta has become increasingly irate and an Indonesian minister on Thursday accused Singapore of acting "like a child".

Singapore said Saturday that it would pursue local firms found to be involved in starting forest fires in Indonesia, as Greenpeace said the blazes were on palm oil plantations owned by Indonesian, Malaysian and Singaporean companies.

Smog has engulfed the city-state with fluctuating levels rising to a record high Friday, although they had dropped to "moderate" by Saturday afternoon, giving beleaguered residents relief that was predicted to be temporary.

Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam told a press conference Saturday that Singapore would investigate possible legal action against domestic companies responsible for the fires.

"I have asked the attorney-general to consider what is it that we can do in Singapore if such companies can be proved to have contributed in some way (to the fires)...We will do everything we can do," he told a press conference.

"We will offer no succour or refuge if the actions of the companies have indeed been illegal in Indonesia and impacted on Singapore," Shanmugam said.

He pressed Indonesia to provide evidence.

"We would have to depend on Indonesia to give us the evidence...Indonesian investigation authorities need to be on the ground, I cannot send my police officers in there to investigate," he said.

Environmental group Greenpeace said in a statement on Saturday: "NASA hotspot data in (Indonesia's) Sumatra over the past 10 days (11-21 June) has revealed hundreds of fire hotspots in palm oil concessions that are owned by Indonesian, Malaysian and Singaporean companies."

Shanmugam told the press conference that he would raise the regional smog problem at next week's Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meeting.

He added that the city-state would pursue the matter at other forums if the ASEAN foreign ministers' meeting in Brunei next week produced no "concrete results".

In a separate interview with local media, Shanmugam, who is also Singapore's law minister, said Singapore would "take all steps even if it means that our neighbours are upset".

Indonesia last week sought to shift some of the blame for the raging forest fires on Malaysian and Singaporean palm oil companies that had invested in Indonesia.

Indonesia's environment minister told the Antara news agency on Saturday field researchers had identified 14 firms responsible for the fires, identifying one of the companies as Malaysian.

"We found an indication that one of them came from Malaysia. We have found no other foreign firms coming from other countries," he told Antara.

A senior presidential aide Kuntoro Mangkusubroto said Friday that the fires happened in concession areas belonging to two paper producers.

Singapore's smog index reached an all-time record level of 401 on Friday.

It hovered over the "hazardous" 300 level on Saturday before dropping to a "moderate" level of 73 by the late afternoon.

Government guidelines advise the public to "avoid all unnecessary outdoor activity" at levels above 300.

The haze crisis has had a dramatic impact on life in Singapore, with its residents scaling back their activities in a bid to protect themselves.

But residents rejoiced late Saturday after seeing clear blue skies for the first time in almost a week.

Shoppers eagerly returned to posh shopping district Orchard Road -- many still with their protective face masks on -- as the skies started to clear during lunchtime and social media postings were full of cheerful messages after days of gloom.

Residents of private condominiums began using their swimming pools and tennis courts again.

However, broadcaster Channel News Asia's website quoted the environment agency as saying that the improvement "was due to a temporary area free of dense haze upwind of Singapore" and "transient changes in the local wind conditions" before the haze returns on Sunday.

Southeast Asia's previous major haze crisis in 1997-1998 caused widespread health problems and cost the regional economy billions of dollars as a result of business and air transport disruptions that lasted for weeks.


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