No let-up in region's haze woes
AS SMOKE from Indonesia's burning forests drifted across the Strait of Malacca into Singapore last June, the pollution index shot up and Mr Ong Eng Tong's golf course shut down.
"Once the PSI reaches 150 or 200, they have to close," said Mr Ong, a 71-year-old independent energy consultant.
His Singapore Island Country Club was overwhelmed as the Pollutant Standards Index surged on June 21 to a record 401, a "hazardous" reading.
"I stayed indoors and turned on the air-con," he said.
This year may be worse, stoked by drought and El Nino. Another - longer - dry spell is expected in the region between June and October.
Biodiversity and climate expert Faizal Parish told The Star: "We are likely to get another long, dry period from June until October this year, according to latest predictions by the Asean Specialised Meteorological Centre in Singapore. We also expect less rain than usual in April," he said.
The second dry season, he said, would also bring the annual haze with a high risk of forest and peatland fires.
Backed by activists including Harrison Ford, Singapore is pushing fines for culprits overseas. Even Indonesia is faulting last month's local response to blazes that sickened 50,000 in Sumatra, where fires are set to turn forests into crop fields.
"Deforestation creates more carbon pollution than all of the cars, trains and planes in the world combined, making Indonesia and Brazil the world's third- and fourth-largest emitters after the US and China," according to Mr Jeff Horowitz, the founder of the non-profit Avoided Deforestation Partners.
Mr Horowitz co-produced Years Of Living Dangerously, a documentary scheduled to air on United States TV this month, featuring Ford's visit to rainforests in Sumatra and Borneo.
The US actor known for playing Indiana Jones was threatened with deportation after confronting Indonesia's forestry minister about illegal logging.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono announced on March 14 he would fly into Sumatra's Riau province, a centre of this year's fire crisis and Indonesia's booming palm oil business.
While local government declared a state of emergency and charged 37 suspects with burning, he threatened to take over, posting on Twitter that "the results haven't been satisfactory".
The day before Dr Yudhoyono arrived, Pastor Togar Manurung fled Pekanbaru, Riau's capital, with his wife, child, and eight other families.
"Last year we had haze, but we didn't have to leave the city," said the 33-year-old, wearing a face mask even in his air-conditioned Mawar Sharon Church.
The PSI reached 500 - 200 over the "hazardous" mark - the day the pastor's group drove about five hours into the hills.
Immigrants are burning unmapped land to stake claims, said Mr Gary Paoli, a director at Daemeter, a Java-based consultant on sustainable development.
The forest ministry controls less land after a landmark ruling last year that forests belong to local communities, he said.
"There's a perfect storm in Sumatra," Mr Paoli said. "The insecurity of land tenure and lack of enforcement are leading many actors, including some companies and communities, to use fire to clear land, and so much of the undeveloped land is peat."
BLOOMBERG, THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK