Jakarta intensifies haze battle as hot spots rise

2,100 more troops sent to Sumatra; Malaysia closes schools amid hazardous air quality

Indonesian soldiers carrying a gas powered water pump used to help extinguish a peatland fire in Ogan Ilir, South Sumatra province on the island of Sumatra, on Sept 30, 2015. PHOTO: REUTERS

Indonesia has deployed 2,100 more troops to help fight fires in South Sumatra after a sudden surge in hot spots yesterday.

With these reinforcements, there are now about 3,700 soldiers and policemen in the province trying to control the blaze behind the thick haze, which has not only blanketed many parts of Indonesia, but also close neighbours Singapore and Malaysia in recent weeks.

The authorities in Malaysia have ordered nearly all schools to close for the next two days, while flights at three airports were temporarily affected - as air pollution hit hazardous levels in Peninsular Malaysia.

The impact of the transboundary haze prompted Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi to raise concerns yesterday over Indonesian President Joko Widodo's three-year timeline to resolve a decades-old crisis. "While we are grateful that the Indonesian government is doing what they can to solve the issue, we think the plan takes too long for us to see the effectiveness," he said.

Mr Joko told the BBC last week that it would take three years to solve the haze problem caused by illegal forest fires as preventive measures would take time to kick in. Mr Zahid, however, said the steps being mooted by Indonesia must be implemented and not remain as proposals.

Malaysian Education Minister Mahdzir Khalid yesterday ordered all schools, except those in Kelantan, Sabah and Sarawak, to suspend classes today and tomorrow. The closures, prompted by "very unhealthy" air, according to Malaysia's Air Pollutant Index (API), are the third in under a month, and affect the most number of states. Malaysia's API and the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) used by Singapore and Indonesia are closely related - readings over 100 are deemed unhealthy.

At least seven areas in Malaysia recorded "very unhealthy" readings, while the API in Shah Alam, just west of Kuala Lumpur, dipped into the "hazardous" range. Of the 52 areas that Malaysia monitors, more than 20 had unhealthy air.

Singapore enjoyed relatively clearer skies yesterday, with the PSI reading dropping from a range of 144 to 178 at 1am to between 78 and 92 in the moderate range as at 8pm. Today, the air quality is expected to be in the high end of the moderate range (51-100) and low end of the unhealthy range (101-200).

Indonesia, however, was not as fortunate. Satellites yesterday detected 1,840 hot spots over Sumatra island, with 1,340 concentrated in oil palm, rubber and pulpwood plantations in South Sumatra's Ogan Komering Ilir regency. Kalimantan, another island badly hit by forest fires and the haze, had 257 fires, with 108 in the central region.

Indonesia's National Disaster Management Agency said the lack of clouds above South Sumatra meant cloud-seeding operations would not have any impact, "but several water-bombing helicopters will be shifted to Ogan Komering Ilir and Musi Banyuasin".

Central Kalimantan is the worst hit among Indonesia's provinces. PSI levels in its capital Palangkaraya peaked at 1,949 yesterday morning.

Mr Joko said he is keeping a close eye on the firefighting efforts. "We will keep putting out fires by air and land... let's all do our part to help put out the fires, and resolve the haze."


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 05, 2015, with the headline Jakarta intensifies haze battle as hot spots rise. Subscribe