JAKARTA – Residents wore masks to keep out a choking smog from forest fires in Sumatra late last week, as environmental monitors called for Indonesia to face an international court over what is becoming an annual disaster. An official at an Indonesian environmental watchdog called on Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei to take Indonesia to court for this year’s smoke cloud, which has blanketed much of Southeast Asia in a scene reminiscent of 1997’s tragedy.
Severe fires that year, mainly lit by farmers and logging companies clearing land, caused a choking smog that smothered Indonesia’s neighbours, damaging tourism and sending visibility plunging.
Most of the smoke came from Sumatra and Indonesia’s Borneo provinces.
Forestry experts said this year’s fires in the Indonesian part of Borneo were spreading rapidly and the situation there could soon be worse than in Sumatra. Fires were also reported in Sarawak, on the Malaysian part of Borneo.
“Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei have to think about taking Indonesia to the International Court of Justice for the lack in its political awareness,” said Longgena Ginting, co-ordinator for forest advocacy at the independent Walhi watchdog.
He accused Jakarta of doing nothing to curb the fires and condemned its policy of clearing forest land for plantations.
“The government must declare that land clearing has to stop.”
On Friday, light rains slowed the spread of the fires in Sumatra. But experts said that rain was unlikely to put the fires out because the temperature of the flames was too high, exceeding 1,000 degrees Celsius (1,832 degrees Fahrenheit) in some areas.
Satellite images showed less than 200 hotspots in Sumatra – each representing an area of fire. Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo, was covered in cloud which hindered satellite imagery, but environmental watchdogs said they believed the fires were spreading rapidly, aided by the dry season there.
In the most badly affected area, Sumatra’s Riau province, many residents wore masks. In Minas town, about 950 km (570 miles) northwest of Jakarta, residents said the smog enveloped most parts of the town till noon.
“Last week the smog would go away by around nine but for the past few days it stays on the ground until midday,” one government official told Reuters by telephone.
He added the situation was reminiscent of 1997’s fire disaster. Prevailing winds have blown the smoke from Riau and surrounding areas east to nearby Singapore and peninsular Malaysia.
Shipping sources in Singapore and Malaysia said smog was a major potential problem. Visibility could be reduced to a only a few hundred metres, similar to 1997’s levels.
“In a narrow strait, especially the Malacca Strait, it can be a problem,” a maritime expert in Malaysia said.
If the smog becomes thick again, shipping authorities would not be able to do much more than issue warnings to ships navigating the strait, the expert said.
In Malaysia, opposition politicians decried a government decision not to release details of the Air Pollution Index, used to measure air quality.
Environment Minister Law Hieng Ding has shrugged off the criticism and accused foreign news organisations of using the data to scare away tourists.
Experts say that although a lot of changes have been made on paper from the great fires of 1997 and 1998, implementation on the grounds remains weak. A lot of half-burned vegetation is providing easy fuel as the dry season goes on.
Experts have forecast the fires could go on till October, when the dry season is due to end, and have accused the government of President B.J. Habibie of being preoccupied with his bid for a second term as president.