x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Singapore could be blanketed in hazardous smog for weeks

The smog blanketing Singapore, caused by fires in Indonesia, could persist for weeks or even months, the prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, says.

A man rests on a bench with Singapore’s central business district covered in haze in the background.
A man rests on a bench with Singapore’s central business district covered in haze in the background.

SINGAPORE // The smog blanketing Singapore, caused by fires in Indonesia, could persist for weeks or even months, the prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, said yesterday.

His warning came as air quality reached "hazardous" levels and disrupted business and travel.

Illegal burning of forests and other land on Indonesia's Sumatra island to clear space for palm-oil plantations is a chronic problem during the June-to-September dry season.

An Indonesian minister accused Singaporeans of acting like children, but pollution levels in the normally pristine city-state have shattered records set in 1997, raising diplomatic tensions and concerns about the economic impact.

"It can easily last for several weeks and quite possibly longer until the dry season ends in Sumatra," said Mr Lee. He also warned that action would be taken if Singapore-linked companies were found to be behind the burning. "On the scale of it, it's unlikely to be just small stakeholders slashing and burning," he said.

On the fourth day of the heavy smog, the smell of burning wood filled the air and skyscrapers were barely visible. Some residents wore surgical masks or covered their faces with hankerchiefs while outside.

Singapore will suffer "an immediate hit to tourism", the investment bank Barclays said, noting that retailers, hotels, restaurants and other tourism-related sectors make up about 6 per cent of the economy.

"We think arrivals will recover quickly when the haze dissipates," it said in a report. "But the situation is fluid - prolonged hazardous conditions could affect Singapore's international reputation."

An Australian couple on holiday said they cancelled a visit to the zoo and would probably stay indoors.

"I'm never coming back to Singapore at this time of the year again," said the husband, called Rob.

Singapore, a major financial centre, sent officials to an emergency haze meeting in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta.

"We will insist on definitive action," the environment and water resources minister Vivian Balakrishnan said on his Facebook page. "No country or corporation has the right to pollute the air at the expense of Singaporeans' health and well-being."

"Singapore shouldn't be like children, in such a tizzy," said Agung Laksono, Indonesia's coordinating minister for people's welfare, who is leading the response efforts. He added that the government was investigating whether large companies were behind the fires.

"We will take action if they are found responsible," he added.

Singapore's pollution standards index soared to 371 yesterday and then swung between "very unhealthy" and "hazardous" levels.

The readings exceeded the 1997 record of 226, when smog from Indonesian fires disrupted shipping and air travel across Southeast Asia.

Air-traffic controllers had to allow more time between aircraft taking off and landing at Changi Airport, because of the poor visibility.