The ongoing presidential election process, from campaigning to ballot counting, has made Indonesian officials too busy to notice the current haze problem caused by forest and plantation fires in Sumatra.
Haze has forced the closure of airports in Pekanbaru and Dumai, Riau Province, several times over the past two months. But it seems the haze problem remains unnoticed particularly by central government officials who hardly make any comment on it.
Indonesia held its second direct presidential election on July 8, 2009. On the voting day, haze covered Pekanbaru, but it did not prevent local inhabitants for going to polling stations to cast their votes.
The latest airport closure occurred on Thursday (July 9, 2009) at Pinang Kampi airport in Dumai City as haze reduced visibility to less than 300 meters.
“This morning, a Pelita Air plane was supposed to land at 7.30 Western Indonesian Standard Time (WIB) but the plane could not land because of haze,” Edi Kusniadi, head of Pinang Kampai airport said in Dumai on Thursday.
Meanwhile, the condition of Dumai City facing the Malacca Strait`s international marine traffic, was fully covered by haze reducing visibility to less than 50 meters.
“We can`t see vehicles coming from the other direction, we even can`t see the oil pipes located on the roadside,” Kusnadi, a local resident, said.
On May 19, 2009, Dumai`s aiport was also closed due to haze. A Pelita Air plane failed to land and a plane chartered by PT Chevron on the Jakarta-Pekanbaru-Dumai route had postponed its departure as visibility at the airport was only 100 meters at the time.
On June 22, Sultan Syarif Kasim (SSK) II Airport in Pekanbaru was closed for 90 minutes because of haze coming from plantation and forest fires.
“We have to close the airport for 90 minutes because visibility has dropped to only 500 meters,” Taslim, traffic supervisor at the Pekanbaru SSK II airport, said at the time. The minimum visibility required for flight safety is 1,000 meters, and if is below the figure, the airport has to be closed, according to Taslim.
The closure of Pekanbaru`s SSK II airport forced the delay of three flights of three different airline companies – Lion Air, Air Asia and Mandala Air.
On May 26, 2009, a number of elementary schools were closed due to haze covering Rokan Hilir, Riau Province.
The haze induced by forest and plantation fires, could affect the health of school children, therefore the Rokan Hilir education office decided to temporary stop school activities, Suma Al Falah, head of the Rokan Hilir Environmental Affairs office, said.
The local environmental affairs office mobilized a number of its personnel to extinguish the forest and plantation fires, despite the geographical difficulties, he said.
Some 159 hot spots of forest and plantation fires were detected in Riau Province at the time. Based on the latest monitoring by NOAA 18 Satellite, the hot spots were detected in 11 of the proovince`s 12 districts.
Most forest fires causing haze were actually triggered by plantation companies, applying the cheapest method to open new plantation areas, particularly for oilpalm.
On July 4, according to data obtained through NOAA 18 satellite monitoring, there were 80 hotspots indicating forest and plantation fires in 10 regions in Riau.
The hot spots spread in Rokan Hilir district (55 hot spots), Pelelawan district (24), Rokan Hulu (17), Kuantan Singingi and Indragiri Hulu districts (respectively 13), Bengkalis district (11), Kampar (10), Siak (seven), Indragiri Hilir district (six), Pekanbaru (one), and Dumai City (two).
On July 5, the NOAA 18 satellite detected 161 hot spots in Riau, making the province the largest contributor of forest and plantation fires on Sumatra Island which had a total of 277 hot spots.
Meanwhile, the Tabing Padang meteorological, climatology, and geophysics office (BMKG) recorded a total of 70 hot spots in West Sumatra. In the province, the hot spots were detected in Dharmasraya District, South Solok District, Pasaman District, South Pesisir District, Agam District and Limapuluh Kota District, he said.
“The monitoring of BMKG indicates that there was an increase in the number of hot spots in West Sumatra due to the dry air,” Amarizal, head of the Tebing Padang BMKG`s observation and information section, said recently.
He explained the hot spots were triggered by dry air which prevailed over the past two weeks. At least 350 hot spots were detected on Sumatra Island, including in West Sumatra, he said.
Impact on health
Aprt from the economic impact through the closures of local airports, the haze has also affected the health of local people. Haze that continues to cover the city of Pekanbaru, capital of Riau province, over the past one month has caused the quality of the air in the region to deteriorate, an official said.
“Starting from July 5 at about 03.00 pm western Indonesia standard time (WIB) till Monday (July 6), the city`s air pollutant standard index (ISPU) showed 126 PM (particular matter), meaning the air is not good for people`s health,” Syahrial, head of the Regional Environmental Impact Control Agency`s Laboratory said recently.
Syahrial said, the ISPU showed the figure 59 on July 4, its range rose to 70, while on July 5 and 6, the grade rose to 126.
The ISPU for a healthy condition was 1-50 with the IPSU display turning green. MQ Rudi, a local resident, said he started to suffer from throat irritation and a respiratory problem. “Haze lingers on every day, and it gets worse in the evening and morning, when the haze produces a strong smell” he said.
“It smells like smoke and causes eye irritation,” Yuki (30), a another local , said.
The number of respiratory infection (ISPA) patients increased in Pekanbaru in May-June 2009 due to haze from forest and plantation fires.
The Jalam Delima community health center (Puskesmas) at Panam, Tampan sub district, for instance, received a total of 300 respiratory infection patients in May, and the number increased to about 500 in June.
Rini Hermiati, head of the Pekanbaru health service, said the number of ISPA patients also surged by 25 percent in July compared to the previous month.
The number of children suffering form cough and mild flu also increased in Pekanbaru, she said. She urged parents to prevent their children from playing outdoor while haze was covering the city.
“Besides, we also call on Pekanbaru`s inhabitants to wear face masks if they go out,” she said.
Up to now, there is no concrete action by the Riau provincial and district administrations to address the haze problem.
Mayor of Pekanbaru Herman Abdullah recently urged the neighboring districts to extinguish the fires which have exported haze to Pekanbaru, the capital of Riau Province.
“There is no hotspot in Pekanbaru, yet this city is covered by haze,” he complained, adding that forest and plantation fires must be stopped.
Perhaps, if the haze were exported further away, namely to neighboring countries, it would have received different attention, like what happened in 2006, when haze from Sumatra`s and Kalimantan`s bush fires, covered Malaysia, Singapore and partly Thailand.
The haze problem prompted President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to apologize to the governments and peoples of the neighboring countries which had been affected by the haze.
“It is appropriate for me to apologize for the problem although the brushfires are obviously not the result of deliberate action by Indonesia,” the President said at a press conference in October 2006.
Over two years ago, Malaysia and Singapore had expressed disappointment over the impact of haze that came from brushfires in Indonesia that had affected not only public health but also the economic sector in that country.
However, the people of Riau now have to endure the haze by themselves, as the country`s high-ranking officials are too busy with electoral ballot counting, and the wind is too lazy to blow the haze to neighboring countries. Surprisingly, some environmentalists seem to be silent too.