JUST as Singapore is slowly recovering from the SARS crisis, grey clouds are gathering again.
This new threat is from the haze. Alerts have already gone up at the Asean level, warning of a surge in the annual fires set by farmers, plantation owners and loggers to clear land, particularly in the Riau province of the neighbouring Indonesian island of Sumatra.
Citing Indonesian reports, the latest update on the Asean Haze website reports more than 1,200 hot spots in Riau, shrouding parts of Sumatra in thick haze.
Residents have already been told to stay indoors in parts of the island where the haze has reached alert levels.
Singapore has been spared so far, but weather experts interviewed by The Straits Times warned that if the fires continue to rage with the same intensity over the next few months, then Singapore would be in for hazy days around September and October.
This is when the winds traditionally change direction and take a westerly route, which would bring the smoke right over Singapore.
Another agency sounding the alarm is the Centre for Remote Imaging, Sensing and Processing, whose satellite ground station is analysing images of the hot spots in Indonesia.
Research scientist Chia Aik Song noticed the number of hot spots in Riau started rising late last week.
He told The Straits Times: “It's quite serious, there are a lot of fires in Riau. You have very long smoke plumes that are more than 20km long, so these are widespread and big fires.”
For now, the Pollutant Standards Index, which measures air quality here, has been in the good range so far.
The winds are blowing north from Indonesia, which is why Singapore will see only a few days of moderate haze even if the rest of the region gets hazy, according to a meteorological expert.
Another saving grace is that there is no immediate sign of the El Nino, the weather phenomenon that sees temperatures rise and which, in previous years, has created the drier conditions that resulted in some of the worst haze episodes experienced in the region.
But the Meteorological Service’s website warns that increased occurrences of forest and land fires and resultant moderate smoke haze can continue to be expected during periods of dry weather, particularly between July and October.
Preparing to ride out yet another crisis if the haze hits is the SARS-battered travel industry.
An upbeat president of the National Association of Travel Agents Singapore said that compared to SARS, the haze was nothing. – The Straits Times/Asia News Network
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