JAKARTA – Thick haze from forest fires in Sumatra covered large parts of southeast Asia on Thursday in scenes reminiscent of the health-threatening smog of 1997, and experts said it could go on for two to three months. They accused Indonesia of weak efforts to tackle the blazes, and said satellite images suggested the situation was following a similar pattern to two years ago.
“The situation weather wise is very, very similar and the way the fires are developing is similar to 1997,” said Ivan Anderson, satellite system manager for a European Union-funded prevention project in Sumatra.
“It has happened before and there is no reason to expect that it will not happen again,” said Anderson, who works for the Forest Fire Prevention and Control Project in Palembang city.
Satellite images have found 236 hotspots in Sumatra, each representing an area of fire. A number have also been found in Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo.
Small farmers and plantation companies have been blamed, and experts say measures drafted after the fires of 1997 and 1998 are not being implemented.
As in 1997, peat under the burning ground has been set alight in some areas and would be almost impossible to put out without rain, Anderson said. The dry season may last until late October.
Some experts expressed concern Indonesia was too preoccupied with its presidential campaign to give attention to the problem.
“They are all aware of the problem, but in practice we are not much further ahead than we were back in 1997, when the situation was out of control,” said Anderson.
Indonesia’s Forestry and Plantations Ministry has declared the highest state of alert in Riau and South Sumatra provinces, those most affected. Prevailing winds blowing east from there have carried the smog to Singapore and peninsular Malaysia.
In Kuala Lumpur, visibility was down to about four kilometres (2.5 miles) on Thursday as smog blanketed the Malaysian capital.
Singapore’s Pollutant Standards Index recently touched 100, one point away from levels considered “unhealthy”.
The 1997 and 1998 fires strained diplomatic ties and hurt tourism, just as the region was hit by the Asian economic crisis.
Togu Manurung, forest policy adviser for the World Wide Fund for Nature-Indonesia, said it was unlikely the fires would stop until the end of the dry season.
The El Nino weather phenomenon, an aggravating factor in the 1997 fires, was absent this time, but the earlier fires had left plenty of partly burned areas that could easily catch fire again.
“Once the area gets drier and drier there will be more problems,” said Manurung. “The main point is, law enforcement is very weak. I think the fires will continue at least during the whole dry season in Indonesia. Usually it lasts until early October or sometimes the end of October.”
A Singaporean law expert and MP said the International Monetary Fund, which is leading a more than $45 billion-bailout package for Indonesia, should make the smog an issue.
“The IMF makes an issue of what Indonesia should do on the economic side, and should make an issue of what it does on the environmental side as it is also an economic issue,” said Simon Tay.
The World Wide Fund for Nature says around 10 million hectares was burnt in 1997 and 1998 in Borneo and Sumatra, basing its figures on satellite imagery. Indonesia’s official figures say less than one million hectares were burned.
In the Riau provincial capital Pekanbaru, an airport official said one flight was cancelled earlier this week because of fog. In 1997 a Garuda Indonesia aircraft crashed in the Sumatran city of Medan in thick smog, with the loss of more than 200 lives.