Haze and Smoke So Bad in Indonesia and Malaysia, National Disaster Management Agency in Charge, Schools Closed Friday in Singapore

Indonesian Muslims performing prayers marking Hari Raya Haji yesterday amid the worsening haze from forest fires, in Palembang, South Sumatra province, yesterday. BNPB spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho said yesterday that 2,081 hot spots were recorded in Kalimantan in the morning, of which 1,508 fires were concentrated in the central region.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY


The haze crisis continued to intensify yesterday with conditions in Kalimantan and Sumatra reaching alarming levels, and no respite for the two Indonesian regions on the Muslim holiday of Hari Raya Haji.

Kalimantan, which shares a border with Malaysia, appears to be the worst hit. All but the north of Borneo island was shrouded in smoke from forest fires, according to Indonesia’s National Disaster Management Agency (BNPB).

Its spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho told The Straits Times yesterday that 2,081 hot spots were recorded in Kalimantan in the morning, of which 1,508 fires were concentrated in the central region.

Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) readings for the Central Kalimantan capital of Palangkaraya were not available for most of yesterday.

Air pollution levels for the city, however, soared to almost 2,000 PSI the previous day, before hovering at 1,096 later that afternoon. A PSI reading over 350 is hazardous; while 151 to 250 is considered unhealthy.

Prevailing winds from South Sumatra have also brought the haze to Jambi and Riau provinces, with Pelalawan, Kampar and Bengkalis most affected, said Mr Sutopo.

He added that the smoke from illegal forest fires has also significantly reduced visibility in many of the towns and called on provincial authorities to take immediate action.

“As with previous years, there are fires burning again in Pulang Pisau and Kapuas in Central Kalimantan, and we hope the local authorities will help watch out for and prevent such actions,” he said. “We have thousands of soldiers and police on the ground fighting fires but it is never enough, Residents must watch their own respective areas.”

Some 4,800 soldiers and policemen have been deployed to support firefighting efforts in Sumatra and Kalimantan, and the BNPB plans to send 600 more troops to help.

Indonesia has struggled to stop the forest fires – the primary source of the haze which has become an annual crisis affecting millions across Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. The haze is set to remain until November, in part as a result of the dry spell caused by the El Nino effect.

President Joko Widodo, who was visiting emergency workers in Banjarbaru, South Kalimantan on Wednesday, had planned to inspect ground conditions and firefighting efforts in Sumatra yesterday but the worsening conditions in Kalimantan prompted him to postpone the trip. He chose instead to make a 130km journey by road to Pulang Pisau and nearby Kapuas.

“The President thinks he needs to see for himself the raging forest and land fires in Central Kalimantan considering the level of emergency,” said Mr Ari Dwipayana, who heads the presidential communications team. “He wants to make sure that all elements are working hand in hand (to solve the crisis).”

Mr Atmaji Sumarkidjo, a close aide of Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs Luhut Panjaitan, said yesterday that Indonesia is taking the crisis seriously in terms of combating the raging blazes and taking those responsible for the illegal fires to task.

When asked why states of emergency have not been declared by the authorities in affected provinces, Mr Atmaji said some governors are worried that would make them seem weak or incapable. “This, however, would not make them look good ahead of pilkada,” he added, referring to the upcoming regional elections in Indonesia.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 25, 2015, with the headline ‘Situation turns grim in Kalimantan and Sumatra’.

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