Indonesia's haze central: Situation room tracks info on hot spots across provinces

This article was first published on Sept 27, 2014

At first glance, this room on the fourth floor of a commercial building in central Jakarta could pass off as a conference room.

But three large wall-mounted flat television screens displaying wind direction, weather data and real-time maps of 11 provinces betray its real function - a "situation room".

This is the nerve centre where updated information on hot spots across Indonesia's fire-prone provinces is tracked by 12 officials. They gather and process the information before disseminating it every morning to others, including provincial police chiefs and local governments.

"What we are doing is to organise information... and it is amazing how organised data makes a difference," said Mr Agus P. Sari, an official manning the data at Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation Management Agency (BP REDD+), the agency that oversees the situation room.

The added vigilance and targeted information could explain why Riau province, the epicentre of last year's worst regional haze in 16 years, has seen fewer hot spots this year, he said.

Previously, poor coordination among the large number of parties involved in combating forest and plantation fires was blamed for the often-reactive efforts on the ground.

In the situation room, live satellite data is fed to software that overlays other information such as that from the forestry ministry on plantation concession areas and weather data from the meteorological department.

One screen was divided into 12 smaller screens - 11 of them each showing a fire-prone province, with at least eight underlined with a red bar, indicating presence of hot spots. The 12th screen showed the overall hot spot map of Indonesia.

"We zoom in on the province on a bigger screen to check the fire spots and map it on plantation maps we got," said Mr John Paterson, another senior official with BP REDD+. "Using this, we could know whose land is burning."

The satellite data analysis, provided by several agencies like United States-based World Resources Institute, is updated every four hours, based on the frequency of the satellites moving over the watched areas. After analysing the information, officials in the BP REDD+ office in Jakarta upload the combined data onto a public weblink and alert a host of parties to take action.

In July, just after this room and alert system was set up, the agency began receiving text and pictures of burning areas from residents, activists and sub-district-level officials.

The authorities are aware such information is useful only if it is acted upon. "Riau is a good example where good data was also helped by an enthusiastic police force. The outgoing chief instructed his men to patrol areas (where people) traditionally burn plantations," Mr Agus said. "The daily updates give confidence that the ground situation is being tracked, even if there are no hot spots. To others, it signals that many eyes are watching," he said.

Riau recorded no hot spots yesterday, compared with some 400 at the peak of the fire season in June.

Efforts are now focused on cooling South Sumatra which was ablaze with 223 hot spots as of Thursday. At least 13 flights were unable to land at Palembang airport yesterday as visibility plunged to 150m in the early morning. Hot spots are clustered in Ogan Komering Ilir regency, where 79 have been found.

These hot spots, together with those burning in four provinces of Kalimantan, have prompted Vice-President Boediono to hold an emergency meeting on Tuesday with over 50 officials - from two ministries and about 20 agencies, and six governors.

"He stepped in to improve poor coordination and to tell everyone to just get things done," said Mr Mas Achmad Santosa, a deputy in the presidential working unit (UKP4) advising the management of the haze issue.

UKP4's audit of 17 companies operating in six districts in Riau confirms all are operating on restricted peat land areas and lack adequate fire-prevention capabilities. These errant companies will be summoned to explain their lapses, and UKP4 will name and shame them by releasing the full results of the audit next month.

"What we need to do is to think about haze in a different way, not react when our neighbours react, but react when our own people get hit. That alone will help in the solution," said Mr Agus.

zubaidah@sph.com.sg