Indonesian govt grapples with fires as disruption worsens

Kuala Lumpur. Picture by Choo Choy May. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

JAKARTA, Sep 16, 2019, The Jakarta Post. Disruptions caused by land and forest fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan continue to worsen as airlines have been forced to cancel flights, hundreds of thousands of people suffer from acute respiratory infections (ISPA) and the air quality reaches unhealthy levels in neighboring Malaysia and Singapore, reported The Jakarta Post.

Dozens of flights to and from Sepinggan International Airport in Balikpapan, East Kalimantan, Supadio International Airport in Kubu Raya and Pangsuma Putussibau Airport in Kapuas Hulu, both in West Kalimantan, have been canceled, rerouted or delayed due to smog, Antara reported.

Meanwhile, air quality in Singapore has reached an unhealthy level for the first time since 2016, The Straits Times reported.

The Indonesian Health Ministry said in a statement on Friday that the unhealthy air quality caused by land and forest fires had led people in the affected provinces to suffer from ISPA, with Palembang in South Sumatra recording 106,550 patients, Jambi city in Jambi 61,147 patients, Palangkaraya in Central Kalimantan 23,324 patients and Pekanbaru in Riau 9,512 patients.

The ministry said it had distributed more than a million face masks to the affected provinces alongside those provided by local administrations, many of which have suggested their residents avoid outdoor activities.

Sporting face masks, hundreds of Sampit residents in East Kotawaringin regency of Central Kalimantan performed istisqa (mass prayers) on Saturday to ask for rainfall, which they hoped could wash away the smog that has been blanketing the area for days and disrupting their activities.

Sampit is among those badly affected by the smog, with reports from the Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG) showing that bad air quality continued to persist in the area, hitting an unhealthy level as of Saturday afternoon.

The record showed that at a PM10 concentration, Sampit’s air quality stood at 434 micrograms per cubic meter (μg/m3), way higher than the safe limit of 150 μg/m3. The region previously recorded a dangerous level of air quality at 555 μg/m3.

“The prayers are to ask God to let the rain come down as a blessing for East Kotawaringin […] so that the fires and smog can soon end,” East Kotawaringin regent Supian Hadi said on Saturday, Antara reported.

The authorities said they have had a hard time dousing fires as dropping water bombs would not be enough to cover the vast area of land affected and that it would require rain. The rainy season, however, will not hit the country until October and weather modification methods to make artificial rain have not been possible in several regions given the absence of clouds.

National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) chief Lt. Gen. Doni Monardo said attempts to douse the fires had become even more difficult as at least a quarter of the burned land was peatland.

“We’ve deployed 42 helicopters to douse the peatland fires with the support of the private sector, military and Environment and Forestry Ministry, but it doesn’t guarantee that the fires could be put out,” he said during a press briefing in Jakarta on Saturday.

Peatland Restoration Agency (BRG) head Nazir Foead told reporters on the sidelines of the briefing that 16 percent of the hotspots discovered on peatland were found within prioritized areas for peatland restoration that had been intervened on by the agency and its partners.

Data compiled by the BMKG showed that Riau and Central Kalimantan had seen an increase in hotspots as of Saturday compared to 2015, when the country saw a deadly haze crisis. Riau saw 5,630 hotspots in 2019, slightly higher than the 4,965 hotspots in 2015, while a spike was observed in Central Kalimantan with 11,455 hotspots this year compared to 6,156 hotspots in 2015.

According to the BMKG’s Himawari-8 satellite images as of Saturday afternoon, smog had engulfed Riau, Jambi, South Sumatra, West Sumatra, Riau Islands, Kalimantan and neighboring Peninsular Malaysia, Sarawak of Malaysia and Singapore.

BMKG chairwoman Dwikorita Karnawati said satellite records showed that transboundary haze from the country had entered parts of Malaysia on Wednesday for an hour, before reappearing on Friday morning, also affecting Singapore.

“The scope of the haze-hit area is continuously changing as influenced by the southerly wind, which is why smog also appears in Singapore,” she told reporters on the sidelines of the briefing.

She denied reports that transboundary haze from Indonesia had affected neighboring countries prior to Sept. 11, adding that the satellite images by the BMKG and the Singapore-based ASEAN Specialised Meteorological Centre (ASMC), which Malaysia uses, showed that smog from Sumatra and Kalimantan had not crossed into the countries.

“It’s important to note that the BMKG and ASMC use different models; the BMKG records data collected at the height of 350 feet [106 meters] and shows updates every hour, while the ASMC uses data from 2,500 feet and shows daily updates. We use the 350 feet [measure] because it directly affects the people and we use hourly updates given that the wind could shift the haze,” Dwikorita said.

Indonesia and Malaysia have been in a spat over smog caused by land and forest fires, which turned into a blame game between the authorities of the two countries over the past week.

Land owned by three Malaysian firms and one Singaporean company were among the 42 firms’ concessions sealed by the government, as hotspots had been spotted there, said the Environment and Forestry Ministry’s law enforcement director general Rasio “Roy” Ridho Sani.

Another plot of land owned by a smallholder was also sealed, he said, adding that the sealing, covering almost 6,000 hectares of land mostly located in West and Central Kalimantan, aimed to prevent fires and speed up investigations.

Only four firms, all oil palm plantations, have been named suspects for causing land and forest fires, compared to the hundreds of individual suspects according to the National Police. All firms are currently at the first stage of investigation while a handful of individual suspects have proceeded to later stages of investigation.

This has prompted criticism from activists who deemed that law enforcement against large firms was weak.

Roy argued that the law enforcement process against firms was more complicated given that the authorities must look further in identifying the people in charge, compared to individuals who were commonly caught in the act.

“In the 2015 case, we mostly enforced administrative and civil laws. Now the government will use all law enforcement instruments, including criminal law […] so those charged could face up to 12 years in prison,” he said, adding that the perpetrators could be charged under environment and plantation laws.

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