JAKARTA – A thick blanket of smoke from raging fires in Borneo has reached “very dangerous” levels, just as the smoke clears in neighbouring Sumatra, an Indonesian environmental watchdog said yesterday. Investigators expressed grave concern that the problem appeared to be getting worse in the western part of Borneo, particularly in Indonesia’s West Kalimantan province.
One government agency said Indonesia’s air pollution index had gone way above acceptable levels and daily life in and around the city of Pontaniak, the capital city of West Kalimantan province, had been seriously disrupted.
“It has gone over 300. It has even gone past 500,” said Rukasi from the Pontianak Environmental Supervisory Agency. “That’s very, very dangerous.”
A reading of over 300 on Indonesia’s air pollution index is regarded as ‘hazardous’. Normal fresh air will give a reading of below 50.
Rukasi told Reuters that during the day the smog drifted over the coastline, but the worst problems were during the night. Although people have been advised to wear masks, many appeared to be unaware of the potential health hazard, he said.
“It will come back along with night wind from the sea,” he said. “There is a thick smog hovering above from 10 p.m. until dawn.”
Indonesian television station SCTV reported that the airport in Pontianak, 750 km (465 miles) north of Jakarta, was currently only able to operate after the smog cleared around 10 a.m., three hours later than its normal opening time.
Government offices were handing out masks to their workers, but not all were using them.
“We are ordered to use the masks, but sometimes I don’t,” said one.
Plantation and logging companies have been blamed for the smog due to their practice of land-clearance using fire during the dry season.
SMOG CLEARS ELSEWHERE
In Sumatra, however, residents of Riau province breathed a sigh of relief on Monday as their air returned to almost normal levels after rains damped down fires which caused a week of choking smog. Only traces of smoke were left on Monday, an official said.
“Currently, the air level has gone below 100. And the haze has very much decreased,” said Riadi Usman, from the Sumatra Environmental Supervisory Agency.
In Singapore and peninsular Malaysia, the air had cleared considerably. Riau province is adjacent to both and smog from fires there has repeatedly blown across the straits in recent years.
Environmentalists have warned of a potential repeat of the fire and smog disaster of 1997, which left much of southeast Asia shrouded in smog for months on end and strained diplomatic ties. Regional action plans set in place then have proved ineffective in preventing the problem, which has recurred in subsequent years.
A meeting of environment ministers from the Association of South East Asian Nations, of which all three countries are members, will be held in Brunei in April.
Singapore’s 24-hour Pollutants Standards Index air quality index stood back in the ‘good’ range, at a rating of 42 on Monday afternoon. An air-quality reading of 51-100 is rated moderate, while over 100 is regarded as unhealthy.
In Singapore’s parliament on Monday, members were scheduled to query Environment Minister Lee Yock Suan on what steps have been taken to deal with the fires in Indonesia and the smog problem in the region.