Keeping asean haze-free

Keeping asean haze-free

16 February 2017

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MALAYSIA/INDONESIA -— THE great peatlands of Southeast Asia are incalculably valuable, both within the region and to all humanity. Not only are they highly biodiverse, they play a crucial role in world climate regulation,

storing an estimated 120 billion tonnes of carbon — roughly five per cent of all the carbon in Earth’s near-surface. Covering about eight per cent of Malaysia, peatlands have enormous local economic,

ecological and hydrological value as well, providing timber and non-timber forest products, regulating and purifying water supplies, controlling floods and offering many other benefits on which our well-being depends. In efforts to improve socio-economic conditions, Malaysia and many other neighbours have converted peatlands and other types of forest to plantations, sometimes burning biomass to clear or prepare the land.

Alarmingly, these fires now cause up to 90 per cent of the haze that plagues health at a regional level, releasing three to six times more unhealthy airborne particulate matter than fires on other types of soil.

Since the early 1980s, haze has reached menacing levels many times, the 1997 episode remembered as one of the worst ever, prolonged by dry weather and aggravated by emissions from vehicles,

industries and the open burning of waste. A 10-day emergency was declared in Sarawak when the Air Pollutant Index topped 500 — far exceeding the “unhealthy” threshold (101 to 200 range), and well beyond even the “hazardous” 300 breakpoint. The three-month episode of 1997 caused huge direct regional economic losses, conservatively estimated at US$9 billion (RM39.6 billion).

And, the cost to human health and biodiversity, if they could be quantified, would likely represent even more staggering sums. In response, Malaysia introduced many local reforms, including regulatory measures to prevent open burning, with high penalties for noncompliance. The 1997 haze also served as a wake-up call for the region, with countries teaming up through Asean to create an Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution, adopted in 2002, and since ratified by 10 countries, most recently Indonesia in January 2015. Parties to the agreement meet at least once a year.

A Coordinating Centre for Transboundary Haze Pollution Control was created, with an associated fund to facilitate rapid action during episodes. Based in Singapore, an Asean Specialised Meteorological Centre supports tracking of hotspots and haze movements, and monitor regional weather.Aregion-wide Fire Danger Rating System helps guide and monitor atmospheric and ground conditions. Asean’s Peatland Management Strategy to 2020 was translated by Malaysia into a National Action Plan on Peatlands, launched on the United Nation’s International Day for Biodiversity, 2011.

And, I laud these major strides and success stories. However, the region continues to endure serious haze episodes, the latest lasting from June to October 2015. Reports suggest that the 2015 haze cost Indonesia alone around US$16 billion in losses — double the damage and losses inflicted by the 2004 tsunami.

As the science adviser to the prime minister, as well as chair of the National Professors Council (MPN), I have given the haze issue a lot of attention. Last year, the Haze Task Force of the Academy of Sciences Malaysia outlined several recommendations in a paper that also incorporated the outcomes of a meeting between the MPN and Indonesian academicians, held in Pekanbaru in November 2015.

The recommendations include: Rather than burning the biomass cleared during replanting and land preparation operations, industry and researchers should cooperate to find productive ways to use it, supplementing farmers’ incomes in the process; The Asean peatland management strategy should be translated into national plans and implemented with a complementary resource mobilisation plan.

Simply put, a good plan without resources will not work; The destruction of biodiversity, the production of haze and related environment problems are both a security and environmental issue. Enforcement of all domestic laws and regulations to control fires must be strictly enforced, with courts taking a no-compromise position in sentencing to deter offences; Enhanced collaborative research and development is needed covering all aspects of the haze issue — from soil science, ecology, atmospheric science, climate change to alternative biomass uses.

We need to better understand the effects of haze on human, animal and plant health and diversity, as well as its socioeconomic impact; and, Improving communication, education and public awareness can bring about the attitude change needed for people to act responsibly and live in harmony with nature, and to facilitate both top-down and bottom-up actions, translating polices and laws into action.

I encourage non-governmental organisations and industry leaders to assist governments in these efforts. Consumers, meanwhile, have started using their purchasing power and voices to demand that all companies act responsibly to avoid haze episodes.

I also urge governments in this region to strengthen the science-policy interface on peatland management, as well as on wider biodiversity issues. Globally, we have established the Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), which I had the privilege to serve as the founding chairman.

As a biodiversity hotspot, Asean nations need to effectively implement the Aichi Biodiversity Targets.

This requires more science-policy interactions at national levels. Finally, I would like to suggest that a round-table dialogue be established at national levels involving all sectors — government,

NGOs, private sector, indigenous and local communities, farmers and scientists — to openly discuss this issue and serve asaparticipatory and inclusive platform to strengthen governance and mitigation of the problem. We need profound transformations. But creating an Asean that is free from haze can be achieved if we all work together.

Zakri Abdul Hamid is science adviser to the prime minister and chairman of the National Professors Council. This is an excerpt of a keynote address at the Regional Peatland Governance Workshop in Putrajaya on Feb 13

SINGAPORE, Feb 9 — People in Singapore are willing to cough up nearly 1 per cent of their annual income in order to guarantee the absence of transboundary haze for a year, researchers from the National University of Singapore (NUS) have found.

In total, they are willing to pay US$643.5 million (RM2.8 billion) a year — large enough to make a “substantive impact on the problem” if used for land conservation and restoration, the researchers state in a paper published in February’s issue of the journal,Environmental Research Letters.

The paper’s authors, Yuan Lin, Lahiru Wijedasa and Dr Ryan Chisholm, wrote: “Our results indicate that Singaporeans experience sufficiently negative impacts of air pollution (in) their day-to-day life, or personal health during haze periods, that they are willing to trade off personal financial gain for improvements in air quality.”

Transboundary haze is a long-standing problem in the South-east Asian region, largely caused by the drainage of carbon-rich peatland as well as companies and farmers in Indonesia using fire to clear land.

Singapore experienced its worst haze episode in 2015 from September to November, with the Pollutant Standards Index hitting hazardous levels.

Since then, Indonesia has renewed efforts to prevent fires, although a state of emergency was declared last month in Riau province over forest and land fires.

The economic impact of haze pollution here has been estimated using cost-benefit analysis before, but the researchers said that the figures could be an under-estimate because they exclude impacts — such as non-hospitalisable health effects — that are difficult to infer from economic data.

The 2015 haze episode was estimated to have cost Singapore S$700 million (RM2.19 billion) in losses.

The NUS researchers surveyed 390 people in public areas from November 2015 to February 2016 on their willingness to pay, should the Singapore Government be able to guarantee good air quality year-round.

The participants, from various age and income groups, were given options ranging from 0.05 per cent to 5 per cent of their annual income, after they indicated if they were willing to support such a haze mitigation fund.

The average person’s willingness to pay was an estimated 0.97 per cent of his/her annual income.

However, about three in 10 respondents were unwilling to pay even the minimum option of 0.05 per cent of their annual income.

Wijedasa said that one of the solutions proposed for the haze problem is payments for ecosystem services.

“This could take the form of richer nations aiding better land management and restoration by making regular payments.

“Indonesia has estimated that it needs US$2.1 billion to help restore two million hectares of peatland in (the country). They have currently only received US$50 million from Norway and US$17 million from the United States.

“Could this shortfall be filled by Singapore (and other countries in the region)?”

Tan Yi Han, who is not involved in the study and is co-founder of non-governmental organisation People’s Movement to Stop Haze, said that the findings are helpful and “should motivate the Singapore Government to spend on measures to prevent haze, such as a subsidy on certified sustainable palm oil, as well as aid to support peat restoration and protection efforts in Indonesia”.

His organisation’s survey last year found that more than nine in 10 respondents were willing to pay more for certified sustainable products to help mitigate the haze, Tan said.

Most were willing to pay 5 to 10 per cent more.

Consumers game to chip in to avoid any haze include Steven Lim, who is in his 40s and self-employed. How much he is willing to contribute would depend on the amount needed to make an impact.

“Maybe S$10? Multiplied by many individuals, it would be a lot,” Lim said, preferring that the money goes to the Indonesian government.

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El capitán del primer batallón de la Unidad Militar de Emergencias (UME), Emilio Arias, ha descrito como “dantescos” los efectos del incendio forestal en el paraje natural de la Sierra de Gata (Cáceres), aunque ha sido optimista en cuanto a su extinción al darse una situación “bastante favorable” en estos momentos. Fotogalería ALCALDE 11 Fotos La Sierra de Gata, tras el incendio “El incendio se dio por estabilizado y ahora mismo sólo hay pequeños focos que se reactivan por lo que la situación es bastante adecuada para intentar extinguir el fuego”, ha explicado Arias en una entrevista en COPE. Arias ha descrito como “dantesco” el efecto del fuego en una zona “donde el terreno era precioso”. El mando único del Plan Director del Infoex decidía este lunes mantener activo el Nivel 2 de peligrosidad en el incendio de Sierra de Gata ante las previsiones de viento y altas temperaturas. Las mismas predicciones indican que habrá una mejoría a partir de las primeras horas de la noche del lunes, según ha informado la Junta de Extremadura. Más de 200 efectivos se mantienen en la zona. Intentar llegar a la normalidad es “un tanto difícil”, y que ahora hay que hacer valoraciones de los daños El incendio declarado el pasado jueves ha arrasado unas 7.500 hectáreas de alto valor agrícola, ambiental y paisajístico, de ahí que el Gobierno regional haya iniciado ya la evaluación de los daños y comenzado a preparar la recuperación de la zona. El director general de Medio Ambiente, Pedro Muñoz, ha afirmado que el incendio ha causado un “desastre” desde el punto de vista medioambiental ya que ha arrasado miles de hectáreas de pinar, olivar y pastos, además de haber producido cuantiosos daños materiales en algunas poblaciones. La asociación conservacionista SEO/Birdlife ha denunciado que el incendio afectó gravemente a especies amenazadas y a espacios protegidos de la Red Natura 2000, incluidos robledales, madroñales y castañares centenarios. Todo el área afectada es una zona ornitólogica de interés mundial. Por su parte, el alcalde de la localidad cacereña de Hoyos, Óscar Antúnez, ha alabado la participación ciudadana en el municipio para ayudar a los operarios del plan Infoex como “lo bonito dentro de la tragedia” y ha añadido que el “sentir general” de los ciudadanos de Sierra de Gata es de “frustración e indignación” tras el incendio forestal. El alcalde ha señalado que ha podido hablar con los vecinos de la localidad y que los “más afectados” son los que han perdido fincas o casas de campo, sobre todo una familia que ha perdido su domicilio de vacaciones habitual, que era una casa “recién reformada”. Asimismo, Óscar Antúnez ha indicado que intentar llegar a la normalidad es “un tanto difícil”, y que ahora hay que hacer valoraciones de los daños, tanto la Mancomunidad de Municipios de Sierra de Gata como la Junta de Extremadura, para ver qué ayudas se pueden proporcionar y de qué modo, además de cuáles serán los medios disponibles. Por último, el primer edil de Hoyos ha explicado que los vecinos, “más allá de la lamentación”, deben intentar hacer “una vida normal”, aunque ha considerado que es muy difícil “dado el paisaje que tenemos”, ya que casi el 90% del término municipal está calcinado, ha indicado.

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