2018 won't see repeat of 2015 haze crisis: Indonesian Minister

The haze in Singapore is largely caused by winds blowing smoke from forest fires in Indonesia towards the Republic. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Singapore looks set to see a third straight year with no haze, due in part to Indonesia's sustained efforts at curbing fires and preventing their spread.

Indonesia's Minister of National Development Planning Bambang Brodjonegoro said on Friday (May 18) that the 2015 haze crisis would not repeat itself this year.

"In the last few years, including this year, we did not have the haze that happened in 2015," he said, adding that forestry and peatland management plans have already been implemented.

Dr Bambang was speaking at the fifth Singapore Dialogue on Sustainable World Resources held at the Grand Hyatt Singapore hotel. The event was organised by think-tank Singapore Institute of International Affairs.

Dr Bambang's statement echoes similar promises made by other Indonesian officials last year and in 2016.

Governor of South Sumatra Alex Noerdin said during last year's edition of the same event that there would be no haze from his province last year.

And in 2016, Mr Nazir Foead, head of Indonesia's Peatland Restoration Agency, said there was a "zero chance" that a haze of 2015's magnitude would blanket the region.

The haze in Singapore is largely caused by winds blowing smoke from forest fires in Indonesia towards the Republic.

Many of Indonesia's pulpwood and oil palm plantations are located on carbon-rich peatlands. When these areas are drained of water for planting, the risk of fire increases.

In 2015, Indonesia's dry season coincided with the El Nino weather phenomenon, which is linked to warmer and drier weather in this part of the world.

The bad weather exacerbated the forest fires typical of the country's agro-forestry landscape, and caused the region to suffer the worst haze crisis on record. It sent air pollution levels skyrocketing, caused deaths and grounded planes.

But since then, Indonesia has taken significant steps to reduce the occurrence of fires, said Dr Nirarta Samadhi, country director of research organisation World Resources Institute Indonesia.

Speaking to the media on the sidelines of Friday's event, Dr Samadhi pointed to three ways that the Indonesian government has demonstrated its commitment to dealing with the haze issue.

The first was the formation in 2016 of the Peatland Restoration Agency, which was tasked with carrying out programmes to restore Indonesia's carbon-rich peatlands.

To this end, new regulations were rolled out, such as a land swop scheme that aims to get companies off deep peatlands and move to mineral soils instead, said Dr Samadhi.

The Indonesian government also conducted mapping exercises using Lidar technology to provide data on water levels. If water table levels are too low, peatlands could become more flammable.

Dr Samadhi said that these government initiatives have contributed to the clear skies in the region in the past three years.

But other factors not within direct control, such as weather, played a role too. "Recently, we have also had the advantage of having wetter weather," Dr Samadhi said.

Sub-national elections in Indonesia could also have contributed to the haze-free skies, as local politicians would have greater incentive to prevent fires, Dr Samadhi said.

Given the role that unpredictable factors play in contributing to the haze, he added, it is hard to predict if South-east Asia could achieve its target of being haze-free by 2020.

The target was set by Asean environment ministers following the 2015 crisis.

Dr Samadhi said: "The Indonesian government has an action plan and regulations to curb fires. If that is followed, there would not be haze. But there are other factors that cannot be controlled... So if you ask me if we will have haze in 2020, I would not have the answer."

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