Heavy rain clears haze as Jokowi arrives in S. Sumatra

He cuts short US visit after reports of worsening haze, but is greeted by scenes of calm at relief shelters, hospitals

Indonesian President Joko Widodo handing out healthcare cards and compensation yesterday to families who have lost loved ones due to the haze in Kayuagung, South Sumatra.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo handing out healthcare cards and compensation yesterday to families who have lost loved ones due to the haze in Kayuagung, South Sumatra. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Indonesian President Joko Widodo swept into South Sumatra yesterday, expecting to see grave conditions in a province that was badly hit by the transboundary haze.

Instead, he was greeted by relatively clear skies and near-empty relief shelters in Kayu Agung, the capital of Ogan Komering Ilir regency - just hours away from the provincial capital Palembang.

Sumatra, as well as Kalimantan, saw significant improvements in air quality for the first time in weeks yesterday. This, after two days of heavy rain over many parts of the islands, which have been the worst hit by the haze from forest fires this year.

Mr Joko and First Lady Iriana had left the United States on Tuesday, cutting short his first visit there as President. They made the 25-hour journey to Indonesia after he received reports of worsening conditions back home.

Yesterday, the President rushed from Sultan Mahmud Badaruddin II airport in Palembang to Ogan Komering Ilir within minutes of landing, anxious to take stock of the crisis - now into its third month.

More than 100,000 people in Sumatra were reportedly suffering from haze-related illnesses. They were among more than half a million Indonesians who were treated for acute respiratory infections, or what the local authorities call ISPA.

As of Wednesday, 19 have reportedly died from similar diagnoses.

Many were expecting Mr Joko to make a decision on whether to officially declare the ongoing haze crisis a national emergency, after Vice-President Jusuf Kalla revealed on Tuesday that the government was considering it. There was, however, very little reason for Mr Joko to do so yesterday. "I am here to ensure the assistance and facilities for people who are affected by haze are adequate," he told reporters during his rounds in Ogan Komering Ilir.

The President's first stop was the Kayu Agung regent's official residence for a meeting. He then visited the regency-run hospital, where he concluded after a tour that there were "not as many ISPA patients as had been reported". "I wanted to cross-check media reports about public hospitals and clinics being overcrowded, but the doctors and the hospital management whom I spoke to said they do not see a problem," said Mr Joko. "In fact, they offer a 'zero-haze room'... but no one was there using the facility."

The scenes of calm at the relief shelters and hospitals were backed by hard data as well.

The Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) in Palembang yesterday peaked at 430 but fell to 205 later in the evening. The PSI reading for Pekanbaru in Riau never rose above 125, as of noon, and fell to as low as 47 at 6pm, while air pollution in Jambi, located to the east of Central Sumatra, hovered just under the 300 level then but fell to 136 at 7pm. Palangkaraya, for most of yesterday, remained under the 250 level, still in the "unhealthy" range but a vast improvement from four-digit readings that for weeks were the norm for the city in Central Kalimantan.

There was a heavy downpour last night in Ogan Ilir regency, which is near Ogan Komering Ilir, that lasted for at least 15 minutes.

"The rain is a great relief," said local fruit seller Firdaus Nazori, who added that because it had not rained for months, his family hardly had any water in their well at home.

The heavy rainfall not only helped to reduce the number of hot spots and provide much-needed relief for people in the two regions, but also opened a window to start cloud-seeding operations.

Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs Luhut Pandjaitan said Indonesia plans to deploy a fifth cloud-seeding aircraft starting today. And if the favourable weather persists, the local authorities expect to put out all hot spots by the end of next month or early December.

"We are more aggressive now," said Mr Luhut, Indonesia's point man for the haze relief efforts.

He added that cloud-seeding planes are in the air to identify clouds for seeding. "So these aircraft are not waiting on the ground, but they are up there monitoring directly so it is faster. This strategy has worked previously."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 30, 2015, with the headline Heavy rain clears haze as Jokowi arrives in S. Sumatra. Subscribe