JAKARTA – Several provinces in Sumatra and Kalimantan have been blanketed with haze from raging forest fires that worsened in August, causing a surge in people with respiratory ailments such as sore throat and shortness of breath.
The Indonesian authorities are deploying ground patrols, water bombing and cloud seeding to stem fires in forests with large areas of peatland, Dr Abdul Muhari, a spokesman for the National Disaster Management Agency (BNPB), told The Straits Times.
The six provinces that are prone to forest fires and are deeply affected by the haze are Jambi, Riau and South Sumatra in Sumatra, and West Kalimantan, Central Kalimantan and South Kalimantan in Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo.
These provinces also had massive fires in 2015 and 2019 due to the prolonged dry seasons, which spread the haze to neighbouring countries including Singapore and Malaysia, affecting their air quality.
On Sunday, Singapore’s National Environment Agency warned that dry weather in Sumatra this week could result in hazy conditions in the Republic, adding that it was monitoring the situation closely.
Peatlands are highly flammable, and the fires are harder to extinguish as they can keep burning underground for weeks, especially in deep areas, producing a thick, choking smog.
The ongoing El Nino weather phenomenon has also brought dry weather and delayed the rainy season in several regions.
In South Sumatra’s capital Palembang, pulmonologist Dini Rizkie has tended to more patients with respiratory tract infections and others affected by the haze at two hospitals since late August.
While most of them showed mild-to-moderate symptoms, a few with severe symptoms had to be hospitalised to get adequate treatment.
“There has been around a 20 per cent increase in the number of patients with respiratory diseases since the fires and smoke intensified,” Dr Dini told ST. “The air quality has been very unhealthy.”
The South Sumatra health agency reported an increase of 4,000 cases of respiratory ailments in August, from July.
In South Kalimantan, more than 189,000 residents have had respiratory ailments, officials said.
Earlier this week, the Jambi provincial administration advised residents to wear masks while doing outdoor activities. It is also considering closing schools if the air quality worsens.
In Palangkaraya, the provincial capital of Central Kalimantan, all students are required to wear masks.
The thick blanket of smog has also caused limited visibility, triggering flight delays.
Six flights were delayed from Syamsudin Noor International Airport in the South Kalimantan city of Banjarmasin last Friday.
Asked about the possibility of recurring massive fires this year, BNPB’s Dr Abdul said: “We already know there is potential (for massive fires) in the six priority provinces. What we must do is to prevent them from happening again.”
He added that the agency is also paying more attention to Aceh, West Sumatra and East Kalimantan provinces, where there was a significant uptick in hot spots and fire incidents in the past two months.
Fires have also flared up in parts of Java, including in forests and land around two mountains in East Java, while the capital Jakarta has been blanketed by haze caused by air pollution from vehicles and coal-fired power plants.
Apart from the government-run firefighting efforts, local communities are also involved in preventing fires in their areas.
Rubber farmer Edi Saputra and his 12-member team carry out daily patrols in their Perigi village and neighbouring villages in Ogan Komering Ilir regency to detect hot spots. There have been three fire incidents in his village since mid-August.
“So far, they were all manageable. But we don’t know what will happen in the future,” the 49-year old father of three told ST. “The most important thing is to prevent fires from entering the forest because when that occurs, they will be very hard to extinguish.”
He added: “Dousing fires in peatlands takes a lot of water. Even water bombing cannot stop the fires. We have to do it manually.”
From January to July 2023, fires have burned more than 90,000ha of peatlands and forests across the archipelago, according to data from the Environment and Forestry Ministry.
The Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency last Friday said the rainy season may start in November in most parts of the country. But El Nino would remain at a moderate level until February 2024.
Mr Rudi Syaf, an adviser at Jambi-based green group Indonesian Conservation Community Warsi, said there should be assistance from the government and plantation companies to help local farmers quit forest clearance using “slash-and-burn” methods. Under this low-cost practice, land is set on fire to clear it for the planting of new crops. “Farmers must be encouraged to mechanise cultivation. They need technology, at least heavy equipment. It is expensive and they don’t have the capital to do that, therefore, they need financial support,” he said.
Ms Uli Arta Siagian, forest and plantation campaign manager at the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), said that in August alone, the group found over 12,000 hot spots in Jambi, South Sumatra, West Kalimantan and Central Kalimantan, where fires flare up annually.
Around 45 per cent of the hot spots are located in concessions for oil palm plantations and industrial cultivation areas, such as pulpwood estates, which largely comprise peatlands.
“Based on our analysis or ground checks, the fires always happen in similar hot spots.
“This could mean there is negligence by the companies given the concessions and the government, which has the responsibility to ensure no forest and land fire incidents,” she said.
She urged the government to carry out regular supervision of the companies, including checking whether they have sufficient infrastructure to mitigate fire risks, and to impose sanctions on non-compliant parties, apart from enforcing the law.
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