Air pollution in Indonesia falls to its lowest levels

Village houses stand shrouded in haze in Palembang, South Sumatra, Indonesia, on Friday, Oct 30, 2015, but conditions have improved.
Village houses stand shrouded in haze in Palembang, South Sumatra, Indonesia, on Friday, Oct 30, 2015, but conditions have improved.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

Most of the fires put out after consecutive days of rain; govt says hot spots may re-emerge after rain stops

Air pollution levels in Kalimantan and Sumatra fell to their lowest yesterday, prompting many to wonder if this year's transboundary haze crisis has finally come to an end.

For the first time in three months, Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) readings from Indonesia's Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency showed none of the 10 cities it monitors for pollutants hit "unhealthy" levels.

Consecutive days of rain, which started a week ago today, have managed to put out most of the fires raging over forest and peatland since August this year.

At 8am local time yesterday, the PSI in the South Sumatra capital of Palembang peaked at 237, which is considered "unhealthy", but fell quickly to 129 later in the afternoon.

Other cities on Sumatra island such as Medan, Pekanbaru and Jambi, fared even better. Most did not see the PSI rise past 150 - the "moderate" zone - for most of the day.

It was the same in Kalimantan, which together with Sumatra were the two worst-hit regions in the haze crisis this year.

The PSI in the Central Kalimantan capital Palangkaraya was just four at 3pm yesterday - almost unimaginable for a city which on Oct 24 made the news for recording four- digit PSI levels of up to 2,400.

The authorities have attributed the significant improvements to the sporadic but heavy downpours that started early last week. To take advantage of the increased cloud cover over the two islands, the government has ramped up cloud-seeding operations to create artificial rain in a bid to put out the lingering fires.

Dr Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, head of data and information at Indonesia's national disaster management agency, said there were only 402 hot spots spread over Kalimantan and Sumatra as of last Saturday, down from 2,218 the week before.

The significant improvements yesterday also prompted the Riau Environment Agency to cancel the province's haze emergency status that it had just extended on Sunday.

The central government, however, remained hesitant to call this the end of the crisis, as Indonesia is still within a dry season cycle which poses a risk of hot spots re-emerging when the rain stops.

The Environment and Forestry Ministry's director of forest fire control, Mr Raffles Panjaitan, said the weather is in a transitionary period.

"We could have roughly five days of wet weather and five days of dry weather back and forth until we have a long period of wet weather," he told The Straits Times.

"So we should not be complacent until we are in the later part of November (when the rainy season starts). Even then, we may still see a dry spell ahead, but hopefully not."

Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs Luhut Pandjaitan, agrees, saying: "Maintain a tight patrol. They may burn again when a dry spell comes back in the coming days."

Meanwhile, police in Jambi province have identified five men and four plantation firms suspected of involvement in illegal forest fires, reported Tempo news yesterday.

The four firms are PT Ricky Kurniawan Kartapersada, PT Agro Tumbuh Gemilang Abadi, PT Sari Aditya Loka and PT Dyera Hutan Lestari.

NO ROOM FOR COMPLACENCY

We could have roughly five days of wet weather and five days of dry weather back and forth... So we should not be complacent until we are in the later part of November.

MR RAFFLES PANJAITAN, Indonesian Environment and Forestry Ministry's director of forest fire control

This year's haze crisis, which affected millions across South-east Asia, has been statistically proven to be the worst to date. So far, 19 have died from haze-related illnesses, with over 500,000 Indonesians treated for severe lung infections.

More than 2 million ha of forests and peatland have been destroyed by the fires, believed to have been started by errant plantation firms using the outlawed slash-and-burn method to clear land for cultivation.

The authorities have started investigating several individuals and firms in connection with the crime. But some have not been named.

Singapore is hoping Indonesia will share information on the errant companies so that it too can act against the firms under the Transboundary Haze Pollution Act.

Several members of the Indonesian Cabinet, however, have explained that it will not do so until the cases against the companies have been taken to court.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 03, 2015, with the headline 'Air pollution in Indonesia falls to its lowest levels'. Print Edition | Subscribe