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Why It Matters

Avoiding repeat of haze debacle

When a strong burning smell was detected in some parts of Singapore and Malaysia last week, many feared the transboundary haze that blanketed many areas in the region with thick smoke last year was returning.

Weather agencies explained that the poorer air quality was likely caused by fires across the Causeway or Borneo, or possibly farther north of Malaysia.

Since then, however, pockets of forest fires have been detected in parts of Sumatra's Riau province. The number of hot spots was low - under 30.

At the peak of the haze last October, there were more than 700 hot spots across Sumatra. Forest fires, mainly in Kalimantan and Sumatra, raged for more than three months, causing more than half a million Indonesians to suffer from respiratory illnesses. At least 19 of them died.

The fires finally abated in November, thanks to heavy rainfall.

To avoid a repeat of the debacle that brought Indonesia to the verge of a national emergency, President Joko Widodo ordered police to get tough on errant farmers and plantation companies that still use fire to clear land.

The cultivation of peatlands was banned. The country also set up its first Peatlands Restoration Agency to "re-wet" millions of hectares of forests and peatlands over five years.

What has worked so far is the mobilisation of tens of thousands of firefighters, including soldiers and those engaged by private plantation operators, in high-risk areas to ensure a faster response.

When isolated fires broke out in Riau last week, the local government was able to deploy some 1,000 firefighters to douse the flames.

Still, we will only know if Indonesia has done enough when the dry season goes into full swing.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 05, 2016, with the headline 'Avoiding repeat of haze debacle'. Print Edition | Subscribe