Joko Widodo raises alarm on drier weather ahead, urges officials to prevent fires and haze

Smoke rising from a cleared forest land in Riau in 2014. Indonesian President Joko Widodo has called on local governments to declare emergency status early in fire-prone, peat-rich locations such as Riau.
Smoke rising from a cleared forest land in Riau in 2014. Indonesian President Joko Widodo has called on local governments to declare emergency status early in fire-prone, peat-rich locations such as Riau. PHOTO: AFP

JAKARTA - Indonesian President Joko Widodo has urged officials not to be complacent in tackling land and forest fires, as the country braces for drier weather this year.

"We remember that the fires in 2015 had driven us all helter-skelter. And that's because the fires had already spread and become huge so whatever we did was in vain as it was already burning," he told ministers, governors and senior officials at the national coordination meeting on land and forest fire control at the state palace on Monday (Jan 23).

"That's why we must all now anticipate to ensure the 2015 fire incident does not recur," he added.

The president warned that "dryness has begun to show" this month.

"Do not get complacent... 2017 is predicted to be more dry than 2016 so we must really be careful," he added.

He called on local governments to declare emergency status early in fire-prone, peat-rich locations such as in the provinces of Riau, East and West Kalimantan and Papua early so assistance can be deployed quickly. Those involved, he warned, must "actively carry out field checks and not monitor from their office or desk".

Mr Joko said he has ordered military chief and police "not to be hesitant" in meting out punishments to those responsible for fires.

"This year, we really want a 100 per cent fall (in the number of hotspots)," he said.

"I know it's going to be very difficult but we must work hard to anticipate."

Mr Joko said fires in 2015, which had shrouded the region in haze, had resulted in economic losses amounting to about 220 trillion rupiah (S$23.38 billion), which he said was "a very huge figure".

The fires had affected biodiversity, destroyed 2.6 million hectares of biodiversity habitat and left around 504,000 people, including children, with respiratory problems, he added.

He said the size of land razed by fires and number of hotspots as of December last year had "fallen drastically" from the year before - both by around 83 per cent - due to early prevention efforts.

He said: "So early on in January, we want all to understand and realise that the impact of many hotspots brought about by the land and forest fires will really affect everything."

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