Indonesia blames planters for raging wildfires and horrible air quality

Volunteer firefighters try to extinguish fires at a peatland forest in Pulang Pisau regency near Palangka Raya, Central Kalimantan province, on Sept 13, 2019.
Volunteer firefighters try to extinguish fires at a peatland forest in Pulang Pisau regency near Palangka Raya, Central Kalimantan province, on Sept 13, 2019.PHOTO: REUTERS

JAKARTA (BLOOMBERG) - With no relief in sight from a noxious layer of smoke and ash that has engulfed parts of South-east Asia, Indonesia accused the nation's timber and plantation industries of failing to prevent the emergence of wildfires.

Only about 22 per cent of the forestry business permit holders, or 2,179 firms, submitted mandatory reports on forest fire control, suggesting a lack of commitment in preventing fires on their land, the Ministry of Forestry and Environment said in a statement.

But the Council of Palm Oil Producing Countries defended the industry, saying oil palm plantations were generally not the source of burning. Hot spots recorded in oil palm plantations usually spread from neighbouring areas, it said in a statement on its website.

Indonesian authorities have named more than 200 companies including oil palm, pulp producers and individual farmers as responsible for starting the fires and sealed their land holdings.

The number of hot spots in Indonesia continued to rise on Friday (Sept 20) as the country faced an unusually prolonged dry spell from a weak El Nino. Elsewhere, forest fires to clear land have also wrought havoc in the Brazilian Amazon.

In South-east Asia, the haze has forced the authorities to close schools in Malaysia and Indonesia and caused air traffic disruptions and serious health concerns.

While no estimates are available on the extent of losses from the haze this year, a total of 2.6 million hectares of land was affected in 2015, costing Indonesia US$15.7 billion (S$21.59 billion) in economic losses.


Malaysia reported a 16 per cent increase in people suffering from asthma this week compared with the average in the past 10 weeks, while those suffering from conjunctivitis rose 25 per cent in the same period, the Health Ministry said, citing data from 31 clinics.

The country will give out free N95 masks in states surrounding the capital Kuala Lumpur on Friday and educate the public on the need to wear proper masks to ward off haze.

The authorities have capped the price of N95 masks at a maximum RM100 (S$32.90) a box, or RM6 each, to prevent profiteering.

Indonesia has opened temporary clinics and "oxygen houses" at state hospitals to treat thousands of people suffering from acute respiratory illness in the haze-struck regions.

The authorities distributed masks to people in Riau, Jambi, South Sumatra and Kalimantan.

The air quality level in Kuala Lumpur and Kuching in Malaysia and Jakarta was ranked among the world's worst, according to IQAir AirVisual pollution data on Friday.

Kuching's air quality index was at 248, a level deemed "very unhealthy", while Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur are in the "unhealthy" level.


The air quality in Singapore, which is set to host the Formula One Grand Prix event this weekend, improved with its Pollutant Standards Index reading dropping to 60 from more than 100 on Thursday, according to official figures.

The haze has also reached Cebu province in the central Philippines and Yala in Thailand.


The total number of hot spots in Indonesia climbed to 5,086 on Friday from 4,077 on Thursday, with Kalimantan accounting for 2,996 fires and Sumatra 1,414 fires.

The wildfires have affected 328,724ha of forest and farm land in the first eight months of the year, data from the disaster mitigation agency shows.


There may be some relief over the next week, as rains will favour northern Sumatra, northern Malay Peninsula, western East Malaysia and north-western Kalimantan through Monday, with showers elsewhere, according to weather forecaster Maxar.

Indonesia's disaster mitigation agency continued to conduct "weather modification" and managed to create heavy rain in Meranti, Riau, for about half an hour late on Thursday, it said.

Dry weather may persist in central and southern Sumatra and hazy conditions are likely to continue in many parts of southern South-east Asian region as hot spots in Indonesia may continue, according to the Asean Specialised Meteorological Centre.


The haze caused air traffic disruptions early this week in Indonesia and Malaysia because of reduced visibility.

With the haze confining people indoors, there was a pick-up in orders for online food delivery in Penang, The Star newspaper reported.