SE Asia ministers to meet on haze, prayers for rain
10 October 2006
published by today.reuters.co.uk
Southeast Asian ministers will meet soon to discuss ways to help Indonesia put out forest fires blanketing the region in smog, officials said on Tuesday, as people in fire-hit areas were left praying for rain.
Environment ministers from the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations could gather in Singapore as early as this week to try to help Indonesia put out the fires and prevent them recurring in future, a Malaysian government official said.
Forest fires are burning mainly in Indonesia’s part of Borneo island and on Sumatra island, also in Indonesia. Most are deliberately lit. Each dry season, forest is illegally torched to clear land for agriculture, blanketing Southeast Asia in smog.
But farmers are also using traditional slash-and-burn methods to clear or rejuvenate land.
Indonesian Forestry Minister Malam Sambat Kaban admitted in a statement on Monday the government was struggling to douse the fires and an environment ministry official said rain was now key.
“Indeed, the government is hoping for the rain while trying to conduct cloud seeding or water bombing. Rain is needed for the larger scale,” said Hermono Sigit, adding sporadic showers had occurred in some parts of Sumatra.
Cloud-seeding could work in some areas but in other areas conditions were not right, officials said, while water bombing with helicopters is only able to dump limited volumes of water.
PRAYING FOR RAIN
Indonesia’s six-month rainy season usually starts in October but weather experts say that this year it would probably only kick off nationwide in force near the end of this month.
Affected areas hope they do not have to wait that long.
“We are not giving up but we are pushed to pray for rain,” said Agus Aman, head of the forestry office in West Kalimantan province where smoke tends to drift to Malaysia.
Many of the hotspots are remote and roads heading to them are poor or non-existent, impeding efforts to extinguish the fire.
In areas where rain had occured like the huge but rural Pelalawan region in Sumatra’s Riau province, residents said visibility had improved from the weekend.
But in Singapore, doctors noted an increase in health problems.
“I have seen an increase in the number of persons with respiratory illness, either new cases with cough, breathlessness, or with those with throat and lung problems previously,” said Dr. Ong Kian Chung, Consultant Respiratory Physician at Mount Elizabeth Hospital.
Major fires in Indonesia in 1997-98 cost local economies billions of dollars and left many people ill. The fires over that period destroyed five million hectares (12 million acres) — about the size of Costa Rica.
Malaysia fears the haze could hit tourism and businesses if Indonesia does not stamp out the fires soon.
Malaysia’s largest opposition party, the Democratic Action Party, handed a protest note to the Indonesian embassy in Kuala Lumpur on Tuesday, urging Jakarta to stop the burning.
“On behalf of 26 million Malaysians, the DAP expresses the burning anger of our sufferings caused by the annual haze disaster befalling our region,” the party said.
Galvanised by the 1997-98 fires, Southeast Asian countries signed the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution in 2002, but Indonesia has yet to ratify the pact.
Indonesia says the bill is pending approval in parliament.
It is illegal to carry out slash-and-burn land clearing in Indonesia, but prosecutions take time and few have stuck.