Indonesia failed to predict severity of El Nino weather: Minister

An Indonesian national board for disaster management MI-17 helicopter water-bombs a fire spot over Ogan Komering Ilir area, in South Sumatra province, on Oct 17, 2015. PHOTO: AFP

JAKARTA (REUTERS) - Indonesia's weather agency failed to predict that the effects of the El Nino weather phenomenon this year would be worse than in 1997, a senior mininster said on Wednesday (Oct 28), as the government considers declaring a national emergency due to forest fires.

The fires raging across the archipelago have created a haze that has blanketed much of South-east Asia in recent months and, according to authorities, have left more than half a million Indonesians suffering from respiratory ailments.

Luhut Panjaitan, the coordinating security minister tasked by President Joko Widodo with overseeing the government's response to the crisis, said the state weather agency BMKG had not forecast the severity of the El Nino effect.

"I must admit there was a mistake in the BMKG forecast that didn't predict El Nino this year would be worse than 1997," Panjaitan told reporters. "Our forecast was wrong."

Nineteen people have died fighting the fires, and the El Nino effects have exacerbated the dry season, making it harder to extinguish the fires.

Often deliberately set by plantation companies and smallholders, the fires have been burning for weeks in the forests and carbon-rich peat lands of Sumatra and Kalimantan islands. Recently, they have spread to places like Papua.

The national disaster management agency said it expected the fires to be completely extinguished by the end of November or early December. Haze-hit provinces have begun seeing rainfall, which authorities hope will help government efforts to combat the fires.

Indonesia has deployed warships to evacuate infants and other vulnerable residents of haze-hit areas but the evacuations will be a last resort if authorities are unable to provide care for those suffering from respiratory ailments.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.