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Singapore’s haze condition and international relations

October 24, 2010
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Earlier this week, Singapore was blanketed with a thick haze that arose as the result of deforestation and forest fires in neigbouring Indonesia. The PSI readings provided by the National Environment Agency hit a national four-year high of 108, an unhealthy level, on Thursday evening (22 October). The server on the NEA’s website (http://app2.nea.gov.sg/psi.aspx) crashed as a result of the alarmed public checking out the readings, which are updated every 3 hours.

The haze has since lifted, as news of a fresh 38 PSI reading hit the newstands this morning. The skies are clear and visibility has dramatically improved. But the underlying problem continues, as it has for the past decade. 

[From: http://www.channelnewsasia.com/stories/afp_asiapacific/view/1089008/1/.html] Haze has been on ASEAN’s agenda since 1997-1998, when a choking pall of smoke caused by fires on the Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Kalimantan wafted across Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand.

More than nine million hectares (22 million acres) of land were burnt, costing the region an estimated nine billion dollars in economic, social and environmental losses, according to ASEAN.

In 2002, the grouping adopted the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution to coordinate efforts to fight the fires, often caused by slash-and-burn practices by farmers and companies as they clear massive tracts of land for products like palm oil.

Only Indonesia has yet to ratify the treaty.

“This just shows that ASEAN must move from talk to action,” said Joko Arif, Southeast Asia forest team leader at environmental group Greenpeace.

“ASEAN has been talking for more than 10 years on how to combat forest fires and haze, but I think more concrete action needs to be done,” he told AFP.

The haze situation is reminiscent of the current situation in talks regarding climate change – treaties like the Kyoto Protocol are not legally-binding and not all-inclusive of all parties (the US has yet to ratify it) and the actions are slow, moving at a glacial pace (slower than they are melting, I might add) but the intention to reach a solution is definitely present. As part of the COP16 team, I am optimistic that although COP16 in Cancun will come up with significant contributions to history, learning from the failures of Copenhagen. Although a ‘fair, ambitious, legally-binding deal’ is a step too great, any one adjective of the former is a decent stepping stone.

Make all countries sign it. Make it ambitious. Make it legally-binding. Or make it all three. Because, when there is a will, there is a way.

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