Haze crisis could persist into new year, say experts

Hot spots emerge in 18 Indonesian provinces; official says fires at an 'unprecedented level'

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Indonesia's forest fires continue to rage despite efforts to bring them under control, bringing choking haze to Southeast Asia that has cancelled flights and closed schools.
Thick haze obscuring Lake Gardens in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, yesterday. The haze from the fires in Indonesia has spread across the country itself, as well as Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines.
Thick haze obscuring Lake Gardens in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, yesterday. The haze from the fires in Indonesia has spread across the country itself, as well as Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines. PHOTO: THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

The fires raging in forests and peatland across Indonesia, which produce the thick haze that has spread across South-east Asia in recent weeks, are unlikely to be put out in the next month or two.

This means the crisis could persist into the new year, experts said, as the latest reports show hot spots emerging in 18 provinces in the archipelagic state in the past few days.

"Maybe it will last until December and January," Dr Herry Purnomo of the Centre for International Forestry Research said in a Reuters report yesterday. He added that there were also hot spots in Papua, a region usually spared such fires, because "people are opening new agriculture areas, like palm oil".

The Ministry of Environment and Forestry yesterday said it was still investigating the cause of the fires in Papua. But its director-general of law enforcement, Mr Rasio Ridho Sani, said this year's fires have reached an unprecedented level.

"We have never imagined we would ever see those lines of hot spots in Sulawesi and Papua," he told reporters, pointing to a hot- spot map during the briefing.

The smouldering haze from the fires has spread across many parts of Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines.

Malaysia's Natural Resources and Environment Minister Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar was quoted in an Agence France-Presse report as saying that he expects the crisis to continue for another month. "Unless there is rain, there is no way human intervention can put out the fires."

Indonesian national disaster management agency (BNPB) spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho told The Straits Times: "Rain will start in December. It is impossible that we will still have the haze problem in January."

Meanwhile, three cities on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao were also covered by thick smoke. Weather forecaster Gerry Pedrico told the Philippine Daily Inquirer that the haze had been covering the cities of Davao, Cagayan de Oro and General Santos since last Saturday.

The end of Indonesia's annual dry spell in October is usually marked by the start of the rainy season.

But the dry weather in Indonesia this year has been exacerbated by an extended El Nino season. This has made it harder to put out the fires, despite multinational firefighting operations in South Sumatra and Central Kalimantan - two of the worst-hit provinces in Indonesia.

Yesterday, a state of emergency was declared in North Sulawesi, which opened the doors for Jakarta to help contain the fires there.

A water bomber that can carry 4,300 litres of water was being prepared for deployment in the province, one of the latest to be hit by fires, said Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar.

Her ministry yesterday also revoked the licences of two plantation companies and suspended four firms for allegedly using fire to clear land. It also ordered another four companies to procure adequate equipment to prevent and douse fires on their concessions.

Mr Tri Budiarto, who is in charge of emergency response at BNPB, said the forecast from Indonesia's meteorology, climatology and geophysics agency indicates that in about a week, areas south of the Equator, which include South Sumatra and Central Kalimantan, should see rainfall.

"If this proves to be true later, God willing, our firefighting operations would get a lift," he said.

The haze crisis seems to be showing no signs of abating, but the Joko Widodo government is doing all it can to resolve the fires, Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs Luhut Pandjaitan said in Singapore yesterday.

Mr Luhut, who was speaking at the RSIS-Brookings-KADIN Distinguished Public Lecture, said on the sidelines of the event that two Russian-made Beriev Be-200 water bombers will be deployed today in South Sumatra's Ogan Komering Ilir regency.

He will also be heading to areas badly hit by forest fires in South Sumatra today. "I will be there to see the progress of the firefighting operations and also get a briefing on the effectiveness of water bombing," he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 20, 2015, with the headline Haze crisis could persist into new year, say experts. Subscribe