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Times 5 Oct 07
Haze threat 'almost over for the year'
But experts warn that favourable weather may not persist next year
By Azhar Ghani
IN JAKARTA - FAVOURABLE weather has helped contain the impact of Indonesian forest fires on Singapore and Malaysia, and haze watchers say the threat of being blanketed in smoke is almost over.
Even a recent shift in wind direction which blew some smoke from Sumatran land-clearing fires over to Singapore and Malaysia did not seriously affect air quality levels, and Indonesia's dry season should be over around the end of the month.
Singapore's National Environment Agency (NEA) said the Republic's overall Pollutant Standards Index yesterday stood at 54 - still in the 'moderate' air quality range.
In Malaysia, the Bernama news agency reported that slight haze had caused visibility in Penang to drop to 3km in some places yesterday and pushed its Air Pollution Index to 77 - more than halfway between the 'good' and 'unhealthy' ranges.
But the head of Asean's Environment and Disaster Management Unit, Dr Raman Letchumanan, told The Straits Times: 'The situation has been under control this year.
'We've been lucky because there was a La Nina effect,' he added, referring to the weather phenomenon that brings wetter conditions.
He noted that while there were days when the number of hot spots hit around 500 in both Sumatra and Kalimantan, the fires were quickly doused by a combination of showers and fire-fighters.
In fact, daily recordings during the last month by the Singapore-based Asean Specialised Meteorological Centre showed that each spike in hot-spot numbers was halved in three days.
Dr Raman said: 'The fires were not persistent, so there was no smoke build-up.'
But he warns that the problem could return next year unless regional efforts to fight it take off.
For a start, La Nina is not expected to return.
At the same time, some observers doubt Jakarta's commitment to fighting the scourge.
While Indonesia has increased its anti-haze efforts this year, some suspect its new commitment stems partly from a desire to avoid an embarrassing environmental disaster ahead of December's UN Climate Change Conference which it is hosting in Bali.
Green activist Rully Syumanda, of Indonesia's independent environment watchdog Walhi, said: 'With no such incentive next year, and without help from the La Nina effect, Indonesia could again struggle to cope.'
Adding to observers' fears is that while Indonesia has launched a comprehensive fire-prevention campaign and beefed up its fire-fighting capabilities as part of its Asean-backed national anti-haze plan, other elements of the plan have yet to materialise.
The scheme included two initiatives involving collaboration with Singapore and Malaysia. Although no deadline was set for the combined projects - which were launched in January - it was hoped they would be operational in time for this year's dry season.
Both countries are still waiting to sign formal pacts with Indonesia - a move Jakarta insists upon.
Indonesian Environment Minister Rachmat Witoelar had pledged that the signings would be finalised before the dry season began in July.
The agreement with Singapore is now undergoing a final review by the Indonesians, the NEA told The Straits Times.
It added: 'We are confident that it will be finalised before the end of 2007.'
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