Not only has the government’s response to this week’s haze problem been one of weak-kneed impotency, the absence of any effective solution shows how little has been done to prepare for what has, over the last two decades, become an annually recurring problem.
We knew as far back as middle last year that the El Nino weather pattern was returning for 2013. We knew it would mean a hotter, dryer year than normal, so not only would haze be a virtually certain problem, it may turn out to be prolonged and more intense. And yet, when it hit, it looked as if the authorities were caught by surprise.
Falsetto yelps came out from ministers’ mouths, telling citizens they were going to Jakarta to supplicate some action on the Indonesian government’s part. So far, all we’ve gotten are photo calls and excuses why nothing much can be done. “Only rain can help Singapore now” says a headline in the Jakarta Post, 20 June 2013. It quoted Indonesian Forestry Ministry general secretary Hadi Daryanto saying that Indonesia could not guarantee that measures taken to combat the fires would be effective “without a miracle in the form of a heavy downpour.”
One day later, around midday 21 June 2013, the three-hour moving average PSI reading set a new record: 401, in the “very hazardous” zone. The reading for PM2.5 was well above 200. PSI stands for Pollutant Standards Index, and is a measure of air pollution. PM2.5 measures fine particles, i.e those less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter, which are typically produced by combustion. The World Health Organisation considers prolonged exposure to PM2.5 levels exceeding 10 micrograms per cubic metre to be hazardous to human health.
As this NASA satellite pictures shows, the smoke from fires used to clear land for planting in Sumatra is blowing directly over Singapore.
This has been an annual problem for years. Yet we seem to have settled into a defeatist frame of mind, thinking that the only solution is to get the Indonesians to put out fires. In all these years, has no thought been put to designing domestic solutions?
The satellite picture above suggests one. What if we set up a curtain of water to the west of Singapore, such that the smoke-filled air flow from Sumatra gets washed before it reaches us?
It would be a mammoth undertaking, and it will take a few years to set up such a system. And perhaps, a few years more to improve it. But I can imagine a fleet of huge hydrogen-filled airships, that can float close to the sea surface to fill up its tanks with seawater, then rise to about 1,000 metres at which altitude they spray down a fine mist of water. To create an effective curtain, we will need about 300 of them strung out along a line maybe 30 kilometres long, with another 300 more sucking up water while the first 300 are doing the spraying.
I don’t see this as a prohibitively costly solution. Seawater costs nothing. The airships aren’t going to use much fuel bobbing up and down since they will have a natural buoyancy (though they will be huge, as water is heavy). Only extracting hydrogen from water is costly, but if we have a clever (and safe) way to store hydrogen from one year to the next, it is a re-usable asset.
People will naturally have a fear that hydrogen-filled airships are fire hazards. Indeed, there is a risk, but these super-blimps can be unmanned and will anyway operate over the sea, not over populated areas. For controlled manoeuvering, tugboats to which the airships are tethered can be used.
The result may only be partial cleaning of the air, but a reduction of, say, 200 points from what might otherwise be a 300 to 400 PSI will surely be welcome. More importantly, it will allow much economic activity to continue without interruption.
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As it is, the government has been extremely reluctant to issue Stop Work orders, merely issuing “advice” to employers. This dithering is one more example of lack of preparedness. It shows that the government has not thought through the scenario of high PSIs. As a result, even when the PSI touched 400, construction and other workers doing strenuous jobs were still at their jobs, taking deep breaths of smog at their peril. Online, one can see people accusing the government of valuing dollars more than human lives.
Indeed, if work across a whole range of activities, from construction to shipbuilding, landscaping to trash collection, are stopped for any length of time, all sorts of financial consequences will follow. Many contracts contain penalty clauses for non-performance of stipulated work. Projects that aren’t completed on time trigger liquidated damages.
But there is a legal concept known as Force Majeure. As explained on Wikipedia, it is
a common clause in contracts that essentially frees both parties from liability or obligation when an extraordinary event or circumstance beyond the control of the parties, such as a war, strike, riot, crime, or an event described by the legal term act of God (such as hurricane, flooding, earthquake, volcanic eruption, etc.), prevents one or both parties from fulfilling their obligations under the contract. In practice, most force majeure clauses do not excuse a party’s non-performance entirely, but only suspends it for the duration of the force majeure.
In real life, there tends to be much controversy whether an event is a valid basis for force majeure, leading to much litigation. This is where the government can play an important role. It can create a legal presumption that for the duration that PSI is above a certain level (e.g. 200) it is a valid basis for declaring force majeure, unless the party objecting to it can prove that work could have continued.
Thus, for example, if in 2013 we find ourselves with 8 days where PSI is above the threshold, then all completion dates of construction work will automatically be moved back 8 days.
If I can think up this solution to the problem, why didn’t the government? Why hasn’t legislation been put in place well in advance of a haze season?
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Yesterday, the government boasted that they had nine million N95 masks in stock.
The Ministry of Health (MOH) said Thursday that there are sufficient stocks of N95 masks to meet national needs and that there was no need to stockpile.
Large retail and pharmacy chains will have the masks available for purchase by Thursday evening, said the ministry.
The government currently has 9 million N95 masks in stock, and there are plans to purchase more.
– Channel NewsAsia, 21 June 2013, Sufficient N95 masks, no need to stockpile. Link.
At first it seemed like a lot for a city of five million. Then someone pointed out that a mask can typically be used for just 45 minutes.
The government also didn’t seem to say clearly how they would be distributed, though the news report above and a statement on the Health Ministry website suggests that they will be sold for profit:
Singapore has sufficient supplies of N95 masks nationally to meet anticipated demand. People should only buy N95 masks when required. There is no need to stockpile.
MOH has worked with manufacturers and suppliers to bring in and supply more N95 masks to our local retailers and pharmacies such as Guardian, Unity, Giant and Cold Storage. This would ensure that masks are available to the public.
As of the afternoon of 20 June 2013, there have been 7,000 and 21,000 N95 masks that have been distributed to Unity and Guardian [pharmacies] respectively.
– FAQ, Ministry of Health. Link.
On Facebook, people are up in arms after hearing that the state stockpile has been given out to commercial pharmacies, helping them make huge profits at jacked-up prices. Why didn’t the government also set prices? Did no one among the bright sparks in our civil service expect profiteering to happen?
Update: It was announced Friday night that one million N95 masks will be distributed to the poorest 200,000 households free of charge. But a story in Today also reported Teo Chee Hean saying that
The Government, he said, is dealing with the situation “decisively”, and is pushing more masks to retail outlets.
– Today, 21 June 2013, Govt to distribute N95 masks to low-income households, Link.
Meanwhile people are going around wearing surgical masks and paying quadrupled prices for them too. But, as I understand it, surgical masks won’t make much difference because they do not fully seal the nose and mouth.
This massive confusion stemming from poor planning and communication only shows how ill-prepared the authorities are. Yet, haze is not something new. It has been occurring annually since the at least the mid 1990s. Each year, we don’t seem to have planned for it, nor through these twenty years, have we bothered to come up with solutions we can implement ourselves to protect our own people.