Forest fires and haze have cost Riau US$86m

Forest fires and haze have cost Riau US$86m

05 March 2014

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Indonesia — Forest fires and the thick haze over Riau in the past two months have caused economic losses totalling at least 10 trillion rupiah (US$86 million), Indonesia’s National Disaster Management Agency (BNPB) said on Tuesday.

This includes the cost of damaged land, as well as disruptions to flights and businesses, BNPB spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho told reporters after a Parliament hearing on natural disasters.

“There is also a political impact when the haze crosses boundaries,” he added.

His comments come as fires continue to rage in Riau, though light overnight rain for the first time in weeks in parts of the province brought some relief to residents. Analysts, however, expect the number of hot spots to rise over the next 10 days as the potential for more rain is expected to be very low.

The prolonged disaster is set to see the number of residents with respiratory illnesses rise beyond the current 30,000, and the financial toll of the haze is already double that of heavy floods in Jakarta over the same period, officials said.

The recent volcanic eruptions at Mount Sinabung in North Sumatra and Mount Kelud in East Java also caused damage and losses amounting to some one trillion rupiah each, said the BNPB.

Officials plan to start cloud seeding to induce rain today, alongside water-bombing operations already being carried out by helicopters to put out fires, and efforts by some 1,500 soldiers and firemen on the ground.

Rudyan Kopot, head of the plantation committee at the Indonesian chamber of commerce and industry, said officials should ask for outside help.

“The scale of the fires in Riau is so vast it requires as many hands as possible,” he told The Straits Times. “Singapore needs to help with technology and skills.”

Observers say farmers continue to illegally burn land to clear it for planting, which is much cheaper than renting excavators.

Gerindra MP Sumarjati Arjoso criticised BNPB for failing to take pre-emptive measures, saying: “We get flight cancellations, complaints from neighbours, pay hefty costs to put out fires. Forest fires embarrass us as well.”

But BNPB chief Syamsul Maarif said it was not easy to change this culture of burning.

In Central Kalimantan, he said, the local authorities work with residents to carry out strictly controlled burning that takes into account weather and wind forecasts. This, he said, had resulted in a much lower number of hot spots in that province. A similar effort could be carried out in Riau, he added.

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