Hazy new year: South-east Asia set to suffer for months as Indonesia fails to douse fires

An Indonesian MI-17 helicopter water-bombs a fire spot in the Ogan Komering Ilir area, in South Sumatra province, on Oct 17, 2015.
An Indonesian MI-17 helicopter water-bombs a fire spot in the Ogan Komering Ilir area, in South Sumatra province, on Oct 17, 2015. PHOTO: AFP

JAKARTA/KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters, AFP) - Indonesian forest fires that have caused choking smoke to drift across South-east Asia are spreading to new areas and are unlikely to be put out until next year, experts and officials said on Monday (Oct 19).

Indonesia has come under increased pressure from its neighbours to contain the annual "haze" crisis, which is caused by slash-and-burn agriculture practices, largely on Sumatra and Kalimantan.

But it has failed to put out the fires, with "hot spots" growing in eastern parts of the country and industry officials and analysts estimating the smoke will last until early 2016.

"Maybe it will last until December and January," said Mr Herry Purnomo, a scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research, adding that hot spots had reached Papua, a region that usually avoids widespread fires.

"It is because people are opening new agriculture areas, like palm oil," he said.

A senior official at a company active in Indonesia's forested areas said the haze could continue until March.

Separately, Malaysia’s Natural Resources and Environment Minister Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafa warned on Monday that international efforts to douse raging Indonesia fires will fail and South-east Asia could face several more weeks of choking smoke until the rainy season starts.

Malaysia enjoyed a brief spell of lowered haze last week, but the government – which has repeatedly ordered school closures across wide areas as a health precaution – did so again on Monday as skies once again reverted to the now-familiar soupy gray.  

Schools were closed in several states and in the capital Kuala Lumpur as pollution levels climbed well into the “unhealthy” range under the government’s rating system.  

“Unless there is rain, there is no way human intervention can put out the fires,” he told AFP on the sidelines of Malaysia’s parliament session, warning that the blazes were spread across “huge areas” of Indonesia.

Even the multi-nation effort now under way “is not enough to put out the fires,” he added.  “We hope the rains will come in mid-November. It will be able to put out the fires,” Wan Junaidi said.

Facing growing pressure, Indonesia earlier this month agreed to accept international help after failing for weeks to douse the fires from slash-and-burn farming that have shrouded angry neighbours Malaysia and Singapore in smoke for weeks. 

On Friday, Indonesia launched its biggest fire-fighting assault yet, with dozens of planes and thousands of troops battling the illegally started agricultural and forest fires in its territory on the huge islands of Sumatra and Borneo.

Thirty-two planes and helicopters – including six aircraft from Singapore, Malaysia and Australia – were deployed to back up more than 22,000 personnel on the ground.  

The fires and resulting region-wide haze are an annual dry-season problem, but experts warn the current outbreak is on track to become the worst ever, exacerbated by tinder-dry conditions from the El Nino weather phenomenon.

The acrid air has sparked health alerts, sent thousands to hospitals for respiratory problems, and caused the cancellation of scores of flights and some major international events across the region.

Indonesian National Disaster Management Agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho also offered sobering comments Monday, saying the fires were “yet to be overcome.” Sutopo said satellite data indicated Indonesia now had more than 1,500 “hotspots", which are loosely defined as areas where fires are either burning or where conditions are ripe for blazes to break out.  

“The actual number is higher as the satellite is not able to penetrate the thickness of the haze in Sumatra and (Borneo),” he added.

About half of the fires during the last week have been on carbon-rich peat land areas, mostly in South Sumatra, South and Central Kalimantan, Sulawesi and Papua.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo has increased government efforts to tackle the haze in recent weeks, making several visits to the worst-hit areas and asking other countries for help, but apparently to little avail.

"We all know that the burned areas are now widening beyond normal conditions," Mr Joko told reporters on Sunday. "The efforts to extinguish the fires are ongoing now both by land and air. We have to be patient because the burned areas is now wide."