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Southeast Asia faces renewed haze threat as dry season peaks amidst Indonesian firefights

Southeast Asia braces for a resurgence of cross-border haze amid Indonesia’s ongoing battle against forest fires and a worsening El Nino-induced dry season.

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INDONESIA: Southeast Asia is at risk of experiencing cross-border haze disasters again towards the end of this year, as Indonesia battles an increasing number of forest and land fires during an extended dry season.

According to reports from CNA last Friday (8 Sep), exacerbated by the El Nino weather phenomenon, which has resulted in lower rainfall, prolonged dry weather is escalating across the nation and is projected to peak in September 2023, primarily affecting Sumatra.

“What we need right now is a combination of prevention and proactive response, which means we must enhance cooperation among countries in exchanging information on haze and its potential health impacts,” said Professor Rajasekhar Balasubramanian, Chair of the Provost at the National University of Singapore’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

He continued, “So, we need to increase transparency. At the same time, we also need to alert the public about why it is crucial to protect their health from inhaled particulate matter.”

Photo: Sindonews.com

Based on climate developments, El Nino is expected to intensify over the next two months. “The El Nino weather phenomenon is closely associated with drier and hotter conditions.

Rainfall is also very limited during El Nino,” added Prof. Bala. This drier climate increases the risk of peat and vegetation fires and can “trigger cross-border haze, which can impact all of Southeast Asia, including Singapore,” he added.

An increase in hotspots has been observed in Sumatra, with 23 detected on September 3, 2023, and 28 on the previous day, mostly in southern Sumatra, according to Singapore’s National Environment Agency (NEA).

Dry weather is expected to persist in southern and central Sumatra, potentially increasing hotspots and haze risk, which could affect Singapore, NEA cautioned.

Professor Bala stated that the Indonesian government has taken some prevention measures.

“How effective (the prevention efforts) are, is very difficult to know. However, from my observations, they have done various things that could be done with the resources they have,” he added while hoping that more proactive measures would be taken as the number of hotspots increases.

“As much as possible, we should prevent fires. So, we really need to think about some kind of detection tool to know where fires are happening and ensure that the fire doesn’t become uncontrollable and turn into forest fires.”

Associate Professor Steve Yim from the Asian School of the Environment at Nanyang Technological University emphasized the need for close monitoring of forest and land fires in Indonesia, taking into consideration wind patterns.

This way, early preparedness can be implemented to mitigate the impact of cross-border haze.

“I think close monitoring of fire events is very important because that’s the source of the pollutants,” he said.

“At the same time, we need early predictions about the weather, especially rainfall, wind direction, and wind speed, which will be crucial for early preparations in case of cross-border haze.”

“So, in my opinion, close monitoring of regional fire events and weather forecasts will be crucial information for governments in our region (Singapore),” he added.

With the high risk of cross-border haze, observers in Singapore advise the public to ensure they have N95 face masks and air purifiers.

Prof. Bala emphasized that poor air quality can pose a greater risk to people with health issues, especially those suffering from respiratory diseases like bronchitis and asthma. Prof.

Bala said, “N95 masks are specifically designed to protect people from exposure to particles, which may be much smaller in size than the usual particles we encounter daily, and some of these particles come from haze, which can also be toxic.”

“It’s essential to ensure that people do not engage in outdoor activities unless absolutely necessary,” he added.

Since May of this year, Singapore has been preparing for cross-border haze disasters, initially expected to start in June 2023.

The Singapore Meteorological Service (MSS) stated in a press release on May 30, 2023, that an inter-agency haze task force had coordinated action plans to address possible haze incidents.

The period from June to September is the usual dry season in Singapore and the surrounding regions, including Indonesia.

However, MSS mentioned that two climate phenomena, El Nino and the positive Indian Ocean Dipole, could lead to a more intense and prolonged dry season this year, possibly extending into October 2023.

Singapore itself has been one of the neighbouring countries previously affected by haze from Indonesian forest fires, as have Malaysia and Thailand.

Haze has repeatedly become a problem in the Southeast Asian region, especially during massive forest fires in 2015 and 2019.

Recently, at a High-Level Conference in Jakarta, ASEAN countries officially inaugurated the Cross-Border Haze Pollution Control Coordination Center to develop early warning systems and mobilize resources to address transboundary air pollution issues.

However, as of September 8, Ardhasena Sopaheluwakan from the Indonesian Meteorology, Climatology, and Geophysics Agency (BMKG) claimed that there had been no cross-border haze resulting from forest and land fires detected so far.

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