Indonesia – Thick smoke from forest fires in Indonesia has shut airports andslashed visibility to below 100 metres (330 ft) — and there is no respite insight, officials said on Wednesday.
The fires have been raging for weeks, spreading smoke across much of SoutheastAsia and triggering fears of a repeat of the environmental disaster in 1997-98when dry conditions linked to the El Nino weather pattern caused a choking hazethat cost the region billions of dollars in economic losses.
Jakarta has appealed for funds and equipment from neighbours Singapore andMalaysia, which have also suffered from the haze coming primarily from theIndonesian provinces on Sumatra and Borneo islands.
At Sultan Thaha airport in Sumatra’s Jambi province, all flights were cancelledthis week.
“It is not possible (to fly) at the moment. The visibility is terriblylimited. The minimum should be 1,800 to 2,000 metres. Now, it is under 100metres,” airport head Basuki Mardiyanto told Reuters. Mardiyanto is notcounting on anything but the onset of heavy rain when the dry season ends toresolve the problem.
Indonesia’s six-month rainy season usually starts in October but it may comelate this year in many areas or has started with only low intensity in others.
“Rain started a week ago but was localised and with low intensity. Suchintensity will only add moisture above hotspots, especially those in peat land.Automatically, this causes more smoke,” said Remus Lumban Tobing, head ofJambi’s weather office.
Peat fires are hard to put out and can burn for months.
“The pessimistic view is a long wait until there is high intensity of rain.Our prediction is in November,” he said by telephone from Jambi, 630 kmnorthwest of Jakarta.
In neighbouring Musi Banyuasin region, villagers are concerned about firesspreading to residential areas.
“There is a fire 50 metres away from the house. We have tried to put it outbut it keeps on burning again and again,” said Nurlaila Wati, who lives ina village near plantations.
“We are scared that when the wind blows hard, the fire can jump to thehouse,” the mother of five told Reuters next to a scorched paddy field.
Heavy rain has fallen in West Kalimantan province where the main airport hasbeen closed since Monday, but the pattern of rain has been erratic and theairport is expected to stay shut throughout the week.
“There was thundering rain last Wednesday and more three days ago butconditions have not improved,” said provincial spokesman Citra Duani.
Indonesia’s neighbours have grown increasingly frustrated over the fires, mostof which are deliberately lit by farmers as well as timber and palm oilplantation owners.
Environment Minister Rachmat Witoelar said last week police had detained morethan 300 people and had six court cases against firms. There have in practicebeen few convictions though.
Environment ministers from Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Bruneifailed to reach a detailed attack plan when they gathered last week inIndonesia’s Riau province on Sumatra island to discuss the crisis.
Indonesian officials have said forces of nature and social conditions severelylimit the effectiveness of the government’s fire suppression measures, and havecalled for ASEAN aid.
But neighbours want Jakarta to ratify an Association of South East Asian Nationshaze treaty before expecting major funding.
Regional countries signed the 2002 ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary HazePollution. Indonesia last week pledged to ratify the pact soon but that isunlikely to happen this month as parliament begins a one-month recess onThursday. (Reporting by Diyan Jari in JAKARTA)