DUMAI (Sumatra): Wearing a face mask, Dr Suarman braved the thick smoke and stood by the roadside of the Bangko Pusako community health centre to distribute masks to motorists and passers-by.
But there were very few takers.
People here have gotten so used to the peat fires, that the smell and smoke does not bother them anymore.
Orang udah kebal dari asap dan api (the people have become immune to smoke and fire). We have these fires every year, sometimes twice a year, sometimes once every two years, said Dr Suarman.
Visibility was down to 50m on Monday because of the smoke, he said, and yet more than half the people approached rejected the free facemasks.
Despite the smoke and smell from peat fires raging in Sumatra, only one woman is seen wearing a face mask to protect herself at the open market in Dumai.
Some said they did not need it. Some who took the mask put it in their bags instead of wearing it. Companies, too, told us not to force their staff to wear the masks if they did not want to, he added.
Peat fires have been burning in the area for the last three weeks. The dry season and lack of water has further aggravated the situation.
Dr Suarman said that the number of people who came to the community health centre for respiratory or smoke-related problems had doubled but none of their complaints was life-threatening.
He believed the effect from the smoke was more long term.
With the smoke there day and night for weeks, its almost like a person chain smoking. If people keep breathing in the smoke, they run the risk of lung cancer over time, he said.
The health centre serves a population of 32,000 in Rokan Hilir, which is a good one-and-a-halfhours’ drive from here.
People, he said, were aware that they should wash more often after being exposed to so muchsmoke.
But our wells are dry. There is a huge water problem in this area. We have to buy water even for washing, he said.
Dr Suarman pays 70,000 rupiah (RM28) for 5,000 litres of water. This supply would last his family for about two weeks.
It hasnt rained for months. The water situation is very critical, he said.
But he pointed out that the people are used to suffering and calamity.
If it is not the peat fires, then its the floods that get us, he said.