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Debunk haze rumours but Gov’t should also address concerns

Singapore haze

By LL

Haze: Comments from Vivian Balakrishnan and Tan Chuan-Jin on cloud-seeding do not address the full picture

After more than a week of haze, the past 2 days brought the relief of rain. I had assumed, grateful for their quick reaction, that Singapore’s authorities had called for cloud-seeding.

So I was very surprised to see Water and Environment Minister Vivian Balakrishnan’s status update today that “NEA does not engage in cloud seeding and has no plans to do so.”

He said, “Singapore is so small that even if anybody tried to do it, the rain would almost certainly fall outside Singapore. Singaporeans should beware of malicious people spreading false rumours during a period when anxieties are heightened.”

Dr Balakrishnan was rebutting the WhatsApp message that had been making the rounds, which claimed that:

  1. the Singapore Government was doing cloud seeding,
  2. it was to reduce the haze for the F1 races, and
  3. people should stay away from these chemically-induced rains.

In response to the same WhatsApp message, Social and Family Development Minister Tan Chuan-Jin also posted:

“Have you been receiving conspiratorial messages via FB, SMS or WhatsApp about the haze? I have. E.g on cloud seeding to ensure F1 continues and how it'd affect our well-being. And claim that info is from a staff in NEA. Etc. Why do people do this just so to discredit the Government, especially when you have a real health and safety situation (haze) that is unfolding? … No. We are not cloud seeding. (SG is too small for it to be effective anyways even if we want to think about it!)”.

Their responses were quickly featured on Yahoo Singapore as “Singapore ministers clear the haze from cloud-seeding rumours”, as well as the Straits Times: “NEA debunks online rumours that recent rain was caused by cloud seeding to clear haze”.

Yes, Dr Balakrishnan and Mr Tan are right. Singapore is not cloud-seeding.

But that is not the full picture.

On 3 Sept 2015, Channel NewsAsia reported that an official of the Singapore Consulate-General in Johor Bahru said:

“As we have consistently and clearly stated, Singapore fully supports cloud-seeding operations in Johor during this dry season. … We hope to receive the necessary details as soon as possible, so that the civil aviation authorities of both sides can then coordinate the operations. We will work with Malaysia to expedite the cloud-seeding operations once we receive the details.”

According to the New Straits Times on 15 Sept 2015, cloud seeding in Johor is expected to start at the end of this month.

Also on 15 Sept 2015, the Straits Times reported that “Malaysia and Indonesia begin cloud seeding to fight haze”. According to The Guardian, this was carried out in Kuala Lumpur and surrounding areas, as well as Sarawak and Riau.

So while Singapore itself is not carrying out cloud-seeding, it is fully supporting Malaysia’s cloud-seeding efforts (which includes Johor), and the recent rain may or may not be due to the cloud-seeding efforts in Riau. None of these situations were mentioned in the two ministers’ responses.

The second thing to note is that the very valid concern in the WhatsApp message - that “people should stay away [from] these chemically-induced rains.”

I am no expert. I do not know whether cloud-seeding poses health risks or not. But a quick search of “cloud-seeding” will reveal that it is slightly controversial.

In an article by the Sydney Morning Herald in 2015, it was noted that in the “National Resources Commission report released in 2010, the authors raised concern that there was not enough information on what happened to the cloud seeding agents once they were dispersed.”

"Although no adverse environmental effects have been detected to date, it is an important matter for future risk analysis to understand the ultimate fate of these seeding chemicals," the report said.

If there are no verified health risks, it would have been much better for the ministers to allay the public’s fears by informing us that even if the rains are from cloud-seeding, we are safe.

And if they cannot be sure that cloud-seeding is totally safe, surely it would have been better to acknowledge the uncertainty of the situation so that more anxious people can stay indoors or avoid the rain if possible. We understand that the situation calls for desperate measures. Many of us understand that cloud-seeding is very much needed for our neighbours and ourselves.

Frankly, I am just glad for the rains, however they arrived. I am more worried for Riau which reached a PSI of 984 on 14 Sept 2015. I also hope that governmental efforts from Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore and ground-up initiatives like the xthehaze.org petition (started by a group of young Singaporeans) will help reduce the plantation burning, and pave the way to more sustainable and haze-free products.

At the same time, I hope that in future crisis situations, our Government authorities can give the full picture and transparently address the concerns of people, instead of merely characterising such messages as just being from “malicious people spreading false rumours during a period when anxieties are heightened” and “creating undue fear to undermine public confidence in times like this [which] is totally irresponsible”.