S’pore ‘encouraged’ by efforts to douse fires

THE BIG HAZE

SINGAPORE is encouraged by steps being taken by Indonesia to tackle forest fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan, Health and Environment Minister Yeo Cheow Tong said yesterday.

Preventive measures by Jakarta reflected a sense of urgency in the way they were handling the crisis, he noted.

“They are making tireless efforts to solve this problem. They are doing a lot more now than one or two months ago, and that is very encouraging,” he told The Straits Times after talks with other Asean environment ministers here for a three-day meeting.

He cited the Indonesian government’s recent ban on land-clearing by fire as an example. “That ban was an important and crucial development. It states in no uncertain terms that the highest authority in this country is concerned about the fires.”

President Suharto had imposed the ban two weeks ago in the wake of the worsening haze enveloping neighbouring countries and Indonesia’s largest provinces.

Violators would have their business licences revoked and may face other legal action.

Forest fires in Kalimantan and Sumatra – and the resulting smoke and haze – were the result of land-clearing activities which have destroyed more than 300,000 ha of forest as of July.

Mr Yeo also praised recent warnings issued to companies which violated the ban and action taken to revoke the licences of 15 others. “It shows that the Indonesian government is coming down hard on those who break the law.”

He added the effects of the steps were clearly visible from satellite-image monitoring of hot spots – images which Singapore has been providing daily to Indonesia.

“What we do notice is that these spots go after we alert the authorities who in turn act on it. But unfortunately, new spots appear elsewhere.”

Singapore would continue providing satellite information to help Indonesia confront the fires. It would also help the government here identify clouds for seeding operations and would be happy to assist with funds if Jakarta could identify the necessary programmes to fight fires, he said.

Mr Yeo described the fires and haze problems this year as being “much bigger” than the last major outbreak in 1994.

“The amount of land that has been affected is five to 10 times the size of Singapore and with the prolonged dry season, the challenges are daunting,” he said.

Asked to comment on Mr Suharto’s apology to neighbouring countries for thehaze, Mr Yeo said it took all the delegates by surprise.

“We welcome and appreciate deeply this gesture coming from a person of his position. It shows his sincere concerns about the need to protect the environment in the region.”

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