Haze set to last till November as El Nino stretches dry spell

Indonesian President Joko Widodo surveying the burnt land yesterday in Banjarbaru, South Kalimantan, where he also visited emergency workers deployed to help fight the fires there.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo surveying the burnt land yesterday in Banjarbaru, South Kalimantan, where he also visited emergency workers deployed to help fight the fires there.PHOTO: INDONESIA STATE SECRETARY

Indonesia's disaster management agency says it will need more soldiers and more funds to battle the forest fires

The haze, a result of forest fires in parts of Indonesia, is set to remain until November, due in part to the dry spell caused by the El Nino effect said to be among the strongest since records were kept in 1950.

Indonesia's National Disaster Management Agency (BNPB) said that it will need not only more boots on the ground to fight the fires, but also more money to deal with the crisis.

"The number of forest and land fires still has the potential to rise until end-November," said BNPB spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho during a press briefing yesterday.

"As a result, BNPB may use up all 385 billion rupiah (S$38.5 million) in government funding earmarked to deal with the fires by end-September and it will have to turn to a 2.5 trillion rupiah 'on-call fund' set aside for other types of disasters."

The Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) in the Central Kalimantan capital of Palangkaraya fluctuated from as high as 1,992 at 6am yesterday, to 1,096 later in the afternoon.

MORE MONEY NEEDED

The number of forest and land fires still has the potential to rise until end-November. As a result, BNPB may use up all 385 billion rupiah (S$38.5 million) in government funding earmarked to deal with the fires by end-September and it will have to turn to a 2.5 trillion rupiah 'on-call fund' set aside for other types of disasters.

MR SUTOPO PURWO NUGROHO, spokesman for Indonesia's National Disaster Management Agency (BNPB)

Other places fared better, but only slightly. Palembang in South Sumatra went from a high of 758 at 5am to 180 at 2pm yesterday.

Any PSI reading over 350 is rated as hazardous; while the range of 151 to 250 is considered unhealthy.

"Now, Central and West Kalimantan are seeing the worst (in air pollution)," said Mr Sutopo. "Merauke in Papua has also been burning."

Indonesia has struggled to control the spread of forest fires that caused the smouldering haze, which has affected the lives of millions of people across Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore in recent weeks.

There are now about 4,800 soldiers and policemen fighting fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan, but the BNPB says it wants an additional 600 troops to help.

President Joko Widodo yesterday visited emergency workers deployed to help fight the fires in Banjarbaru, South Kalimantan, before heading to Sumatra, where he will be spending two days inspecting ground conditions and fire-fighting efforts in Jambi, as well as visiting evacuees from the Mount Sinabung volcano eruption. The volcano in North Sumatra last erupted earlier this month.

His men, however, face a tall order, with climate experts warning that the extreme dry weather from the El Nino phenomenon will continue to cause peatlands to burn more readily.

El Nino typically lasts nine months but weather experts say the forecast this year indicates that it is set to peak only in November and could possibly last well into the first half of next year.

According to data from 2006 to last year, hot spots typically appear between June and October, but the prevailing dry weather means they may continue to burn until November, said Mr Sutopo. "The number of hot spots rose again, including fires in South Sumatra... that were previously doused but have re-emerged," he said.

Border areas such as Jambi in South Sumatra - where fires occur in far-flung, hard-to-reach places - have also registered a spike in the number of hot spots, he added.

Indonesia's Environment and Forestry Ministry on Tuesday said it suspended the operations of three plantation companies and revoked the business licence of a fourth over illegal land-clearing practices, which have led to forest fires and the haze in recent weeks. All are Indonesian-owned entities.

The ministry, which is planning to launch civil action against the companies, also said more are expected to be dealt with in the days ahead for breaching Indonesia's environmental laws.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 24, 2015, with the headline 'Haze set to last till November as El Nino stretches dry spell'. Print Edition | Subscribe