Life goes on as normal in haze-hit Indonesian city

Left: Children playing football at a Bundaran Besar field yesterday morning when the PSI level was around 1,500 in Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan. Below: People at VivoCity in Singapore enjoying the outdoors at 5pm, when the 24-hour PSI reading was
Children playing football at a Bundaran Besar field yesterday morning when the PSI level was around 1,500 in Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan.ST PHOTOS: WAHYUDI SOERIAATMADJA, YEO KAI WEN
Left: Children playing football at a Bundaran Besar field yesterday morning when the PSI level was around 1,500 in Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan. Below: People at VivoCity in Singapore enjoying the outdoors at 5pm, when the 24-hour PSI reading was
People at VivoCity in Singapore enjoying the outdoors at 5pm, when the 24-hour PSI reading was 123-147.

Even as Palangkaraya readies for evacuation, residents are out jogging, playing football

Palangkaraya, which has been affected by the densest smoke from peatland fires in recent months, is on the verge of a mass evacuation.

However, people living in the capital of Central Kalimantan did not seem to care as most went about their normal lives, doing what they usually do on a Sunday morning.

Yesterday, many were at Bundaran Besar, or big roundabout in English, the city's most popular weekend spot, for their morning stroll.

PRIORITY FOR BABIES AND CHILDREN

We allow babies to stay for up to three days but, for special cases, they can stay longer. And while we tell people we are supposed to focus on infants and kids under five years old, if adults come, we cannot reject them.

DR SUSILO SUMITRO, who helps at a shelter in Rajawali, and expects the number of people seeking treatment to increase

Youngsters were seen out in groups jogging, cycling, in-line skating and playing football, mostly without wearing any masks to protect them from the haze.

This, even though the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) was hovering above 1,500 for most of the day.

The scene of normalcy in the midst of the toxic haze, however, belies the mobilisation under way outside the city of more than 220,000 people, where Indonesia's Social Affairs Minister Kofifah Indar Parawansa was frenetically overseeing the setting up of emergency shelters in the event the haze renders the city unliveable.

Palangkaraya, and the smaller towns and villages around it, is the worst hit among the places in Indonesia affected by the haze.

The PSI there regularly soars into four-digit levels. Yesterday, air pollution peaked at 1,682, still within the "hazardous" zone but a far cry from the more than 2,400 PSI it reached on Saturday.

As of 5pm, the PSI was 518. In Indonesia, any index reading above 350 is considered hazardous.

The central government is racing against time to build emergency shelters. There is concern that the peatland fires, raging unabated due to the dry spell, will worsen conditions described by National Disaster Management Agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho as a "crime against humanity of extraordinary proportions".

Mr Farid Wajdi, an official with the Social Affairs Department, said that as of yesterday, six shelters equipped with air purifiers and air-conditioners had been set up.

One of them is located in a 350 sq m facility that used to house the department's Trauma and Protection Centre in Palangkaraya. The centre has the capacity to accommodate up to 40 people, and an additional 20 in a tent put up in its front yard, said Mr Farid.

Two other shelters are at the Palangkaraya State Hospital and the Palangkaraya Christian University.

"The number will increase in the days ahead," he said.

At a shelter in Rimbawan, a town in Palangkaraya, 184 people were given 15 minutes to breathe with an oxygen tank on Saturday - more than double the number of people the previous day.

The building is owned by the Central Kalimantan Forestry Department, and the oxygen treatment is conducted by volunteers from the local Boy Scout and Girl Scout groups.

Dr Susilo Sumitro, who helps at a shelter in Rajawali, also in Palangkaraya, said he treated 18 patients on Saturday, and expects the number to increase as more people become aware of the shelters.

Jakarta has said priority for the evacuation and shelters will go to babies and children, but Dr Susilo said he will treat anyone in need.

"We allow babies to stay for up to three days but, for special cases, they can stay longer," he added. "And while we tell people we are supposed to focus on infants and kids under five years old, if adults come, we cannot reject them."

The government had earlier announced that it will evacuate babies and children from their homes in parts of Sumatra and Kalimantan, if the haze worsens. On Friday, six navy ships were on high alert off the waters of the two regions to receive the evacuees.

A problem emergency workers will have to deal with during the operation would be convincing people to leave their homes for shelters farther south in Banjarmasin, or for the ships to live at sea till the haze clears. Some do not want to leave their loved ones behind, while others were worried about losing their jobs.

When asked what she thought about being evacuated to South Kalimantan, which is a five-hour drive from Palangkaraya, 55-year-old Evina Trikapatini, who works for the Palangkaraya land agency, said: "I would want to, but my boss would have to give permission first."

Ms Ratu Yulidia, a 21-year-old travel agent, said: "I would want to be evacuated, but my boss has to give me permission, which is impossible because I am now very busy."

Some like 18-year-old Zaini told The Straits Times yesterday that he prefers not to leave Palangkaraya despite the toxic air.

The high school student's school was closed - like many others across Kalimantan and Sumatra to keep students indoors - but Zaini was out playing football with his friends at Bundaran Besar.

He said: "I would not want to go to Banjarmasin. I still like it here."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 26, 2015, with the headline 'Life goes on as normal in haze-hit city'. Print Edition | Subscribe