Commentary: Is Singapore prepared for the haze season?
There is little that Singapore can do to prevent transboundary haze, but it can focus on adaptation, say NTU’s Euston Quah and Nursultan Iuldashov.
SINGAPORE: In recent weeks, there have been murmurs about the prospect of seasonal haze arising from forest fires and clearing of land, primarily in Indonesia.
The Singapore Institute of International Affairs forecast in June a high likelihood of severe haze in the coming months. Minister for Sustainability and Environment Grace Fu said on Jul 5 that this year’s dry season is expected to be the hottest and driest since 2019.
It is bad news whenever the El Nino phenomenon, which entails lower-than-average rainfall and soaring temperatures across Southeast Asia, combines with slash-and-burn agriculture in the region.
Southeast Asia’s transboundary haze has been a perennial issue since the 1970s, with particularly severe episodes costing affected countries billions of dollars. The world is also not spared as forest fires result in substantive carbon emissions, exacerbating climate change.
AN INTRACTABLE PROBLEM
Haze pollution remains largely intractable despite repeated efforts to mitigate it in Southeast Asia.
We and our Nanyang Technological University colleagues estimate that the 2015 haze, which lasted two months, cost Singapore S$1.83 billion (US$1.34 billion), or 0.45 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product.
This comprises tangible damages such as adverse impact on health (53 per cent), loss in tourism (22 per cent), productivity loss due to restricted activity (21 per cent) and cost of mitigation and adaptation by government agencies and households (4 per cent).
Intangible damages, such as losses in recreation and scenic views, accounted for an additional S$0.36 billion. The haze’s toll on mental health was not estimated.
It is clear that Singapore has little transnational jurisdiction on haze perpetrators, apart from holding Singapore firms accountable. But the number of local companies responsible for causing haze pollution is very small relative to the total number of errant plantation owners abroad.
It is important for Indonesia and other countries to penalise culprit businesses operating there. But this is challenging due to complex legal requirements for identification and evidence for proceedings.
There have also been calls for consumers to boycott haze-linked products, such as palm oil. However, Singapore’s consumption of palm oil products accounts for a negligible portion of global demand, so boycotts are unlikely to succeed in reducing the fires.Meanwhile, bans on palm oil products risk the possibility of trade retaliation.
ADAPTING TO HAZE
Given these limited options, there is little that Singapore can do to prevent transboundary haze. But what it can focus on is adaptation.
In recent months, Singapore has geared up preparation efforts for the haze, such as stockpiling N95 masks, installing air filtration systems and providing haze shelters. These efforts are deemed more significant than in previous years because we have learnt from past episodes that a prepared Singapore will mitigate damages that were estimated, particularly on public health.
Our experience with the pandemic has also prepared us to take more action. Like COVID-19, transboundary haze may entail the restriction of outdoor activities and mobilisation of community centres in rendering assistance to vulnerable individuals. The public is accustomed to shifting daily lifestyles in the face of public health emergencies.
But more can be done to protect people from the dangers of haze pollution. It was observed in the past that when the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) readings were at unhealthy levels, some people were still out on the streets without any face masks.
This calls for better ways to educate and nudge people to put on the N95 mask. Wearing a N95 mask rather than a surgical one is crucial because haze contains PM2.5, tiny particles that cause significant health and respiratory issues in the short and long run.
Installing air purifiers in nursing homes and schools is also an important adaptation measure for those vulnerable to air pollution.
This is also the case with haze shelters. The Ministry of Sustainability and the Environment is considering opening air-conditioned rooms at residents' committee centres and community centres in the event of haze, to serve people who might not be able to afford air purifiers or air-conditioning in their homes.
While these preventive measures are important, timely communication about the arrival of bad haze episodes is needed so that the public knows when to use masks and air purifiers, or when to take refuge in haze shelters.
Other measures that can be taken include encouraging work-from-home and home-based learning during severe haze.
It was also reported during previous haze episodes that some outdoor sports facilities were still open when they should have been closed, suggesting that authorities might have to intervene in ensuring people stay safe.
LONG-TERM ECONOMIC COSTS
Addressing the transboundary haze is important not just for public health, but in preventing long-term economic costs.
For example, air pollution could discourage foreigners from working in Singapore, and may mean more remuneration would be needed to attract and retain future workers. This may in turn increase higher business and living costs.
The costs of transboundary haze for Singapore must be continually estimated and updated, so that we know which sectors are affected and what redress is needed.
Euston Quah is Albert Winsemius Chair Professor of Economics and Director of the Economic Growth Centre at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (NTU). Nursultan Iuldashov is Research Associate at NTU.