First group heads to warships to seek refuge from haze

An Indonesian warship docked in Banjarmasin's Port of Trisakti in South Kalimantan, Indonesia, on Oct 26, 2015.
An Indonesian warship docked in Banjarmasin's Port of Trisakti in South Kalimantan, Indonesia, on Oct 26, 2015. PHOTO: EPA

People displaced from their homes because of the haze in Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan, have started to head south to Banjarmasin, where navy warships are docked and standing by to take in evacuees from various parts of Borneo island.

The eight who arrived yesterday, ahead of any official evacuation, were received by the Indonesian military (TNI) and treated on the KRI Dr Soeharso, a naval floating hospital.

The group, which included children and the elderly, had heard about the warships and decided to make the six-hour journey to seek refuge after their hometowns were hit by the smoke from forest fires.

Yesterday, the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) in Palangkaraya peaked at 1,696 at 10am. Four-digit PSI readings have been a norm for the city in recent weeks.

TNI Lieutenant-Colonel Waston Pasaribu told The Straits Times that seven of the group of eight were treated for acute respiratory infections, or what the Indonesian health authorities refer to as ISPA.

The eighth patient, who previously suffered from tuberculosis, was immediately rushed to a military hospital nearby, added the deputy territorial military commander of the South Kalimantan province.

"The crew from the vessel are working with the South Kalimantan Health Department, state clinics, green groups and babinsa," he said, referring to TNI soldiers assigned to perform administrative duties in villages. "They spread the information that our hospital ship is ready to treat our people."

Sumatra and Kalimantan have been badly affected by the haze from forest and peatland fires since the crisis started three months ago.

The worsening conditions prompted the government last week to prepare for a mass evacuation of infants and children to shelters as well as warships and other vessels operated by the Transportation Ministry and state-owned shipping firm Pelayaran Nasional Indonesia.

There are a total of 27 ships, including 11 from the navy, which are on high alert off Kalimantan and Sumatra. They are the last resort in the event that cities need to be evacuated after being rendered unliveable owing to the haze.

People on the two islands, however, may have some reprieve as rain is expected in the coming days, said the head of data and information at the national disaster management agency.

Dr Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, who is also the agency's spokesman, said yesterday that data from the Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency shows a chance for rainfall over Kalimantan and Sumatra from today to Friday.

The severity of this year's transboundary haze crisis has prompted Indonesian President Joko Widodo to cut short his maiden visit to the United States.

His administration plans to review a law that allows small-time farmers to slash and burn up to 2ha of peatland for cultivation. The reason for amending the law is that Indonesia's carbon-rich peatland, where thousands of hot spots have been detected in recent months, is now in critical condition.

Mr Joko has also set for his government the goal of resolving the transboundary crisis in three years.

The country, however, may take as long as a decade to permanently curb land-burning, according to a research fellow at Nanyang Technological University.

Although Indonesia has ratified a regional agreement committing it to act to reduce the smoke "haze" caused by the land fires, the law has yet to be enacted locally in its districts, said Mr Jonatan Anderias Lassa, who is a research fellow at the Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies.

Meanwhile, Indonesian lawmakers have called for the haze crisis to be declared a national disaster.

House of Representatives Speaker Setya Novanto said the haze had spread to other regions and caused thousands to suffer health problems and economic hardship.

"Of course, we should pay attention to this proposal (to name the haze a national disaster) because it has affected regions," said Golkar representatives in the House of Representatives on Monday.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 28, 2015, with the headline 'First group heads to warships to seek refuge from haze'. Print Edition | Subscribe