The Malacca and Singapore Straits is a strategic gateway in world trade and one of the world’s busiest waterways. On any given day, over 140 ships – such very large oil tankers, container ships, bulk carriers and cruise liners, ply through the Straits; not forgetting the smaller crafts like passenger ferries, tugs and barges making frequent cross-Straits voyages in the littoral states of Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia.
During the past week, acrid haze originating from forest fires in Sumatra, Indonesia has blanketed the region, including the southern Straits, southern peninsular Malaysia and the island of Singapore. While smoke haze is a perennial problem for the region during this time of the year, at noon today, the 3-hour Pollutant Standards Index hit an unprecedented high of 401, which is deemed as being hazardous to health. Visibility had also dropped significantly.
The Singapore Shipping Association (SSA) is gravely concerned with the effects of the worsening hazy conditions on the safe navigation of ships through the Straits of Malacca and Singapore.
Whilst shipmasters are competently trained to navigate through very foggy and stormy weathers in other open seas, transiting through the narrow and busy Straits of Malacca and Singapore, however, can be very challenging and dangerous especially under extreme smoky conditions.
Mr Daniel Tan, Executive Director of SSA said, “The Straits of Malacca and Singapore are among the busiest and narrowest shipping lanes in the world. Reduced visibility in such heavy shipping traffic will definitely affect the safe navigation of ships in the Straits. The passage through the Straits is further complicated by the many smaller barter trading ships and also passenger ships in cross-Strait traffic.”
While the smoke haze is a serious concern for the region, a maritime accident in the Straits would also have an extremely adverse and lasting impact on the marine environment.
He added, “In the event of any unfortunate accident, human lives and the marine environment will be at risk, especially if it involves a fully laden VLCC. The oil spillage from the tanker can have serious consequences not only on the marine life in the Straits but also affect the livelihood of fishermen and those who depend on the tourist industry.”
The SSA is also concerned that the smoke from the forest fires will not only contribute to atmospheric pollution but also climate change. The inhalation of the particulate matters from the smoke by the seafarers on board the transiting ships is also a serious concern.
In this regard, the SSA has urged the Masters of all ships transiting the Straits of Malacca and Singapore to take all necessary measures to ensure a safe passage. In addition to paying close attention to safety broadcasts on the relevant VHF channels, Masters have also been advised to navigate with caution in accordance with the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea.
In particular, Masters have been strongly advised to proceed at a safe speed and to posting additional look-outs, instead of solely relying on electronic navigational aids to detect small ships in the vicinity.
In the interest of safe navigation and clean environment, both marine and atmospheric, the SSA appeals to the Indonesian Government to put an urgent stop to the indiscriminate ‘slash and burn’ method of land clearing in Sumatra.