Indonesia– Jakarta: The Indonesian government has ruled out evacuating residents from Sumatra despite media reports of deaths from respiratory illnesses due to crisis levels of pollution from forest fires.
Indonesia’s National Disaster Management Agency told Fairfax Media “the best medicine for haze is rain” and it was considering creating artificial rain to douse the fires ravaging South Sumatra.
The Pollutant Standards Index (PSI), which measures air quality, soared to “dangerous” levels of 984 in Pekanbaru, the capital of Riau in Sumatra, and 550 in Palembang, the capital of South Sumatra.
A PSI reading above 300 is classified as hazardous by the Singaporean government.
Greenpeace Indonesia called on the Indonesian government to evacuate residents from severely haze-affected areas, saying children had already died in Riau and Jambi in Sumatra.
“The most important thing is to try to save people,” Greenpeace Indonesia forest campaigner Teguh Surya told Fairfax Media.
“Jokowi [the popular name for Indonesian President Joko Widodo] should make a decision to evacuate as soon as possible. The government has let people live for a month already in a poisonous area. It’s very terrible.”
But National Disaster Management Agency head Willem Rampangilei told Fairfax Media that while people often suggested evacuating residents, it was not easy and actually created more problems: “The best medicine for haze is raining. So we are thinking of making artificial rain.”
Mr Rampangilei said the meteorology agency had advised there were sufficient clouds over South Sumatra from September 13 to increase the likelihood of being able to produce artificial rain to 50 per cent.
Earlier cloud-seeding attempts in Riau province had reportedly been hampered by a lack of clouds and moisture in the air.
The drought this year has exacerbated forest fires across Indonesia, with 1409 hot spots detected in Sumatra and Kalimantan as of September 14, according to the National Disaster Management Agency.
Research by scientists at the Indonesia-based Centre for International Forestry Research found the main cause of the annual fires in Riau came from dried and deforested peatlands.
The slash-and-burn technique of land clearing used by palm oil and timber plantations are also commonly blamed for starting the fires.
Schools in the province of Jambi have been closed due to the choking haze and dozens of residents have sought treatment for respiratory illnesses at hospitals.
The Jakarta Post reported on Monday that two children had died in Jambi last week after experiencing acute respiratory symptoms.
Jambi resident Fitri Arisyah told Fairfax Media the haze was worse than previous years. “Before schools closed for a few days tops,” she said. “Now, it’s been over a month. The markets are pretty much empty, no one wants to go out with all the smoke and dust. We have to wear masks everywhere we want to go.”
High levels of air pollution have also been recorded in Malaysia and Singapore and could threaten this year’s Singapore Grand Prix on September 20.
The annual fires strain relations between Singapore and Indonesia. Indonesia refused Singapore’s offer to assist it fighting the fires, reportedly saying it already had aircraft with water-bombing capability, plus it rented Air Tractors from Australia.
Indonesia is in the top 10 greenhouse gas-emitting countries in the world, with deforestation and peatland destruction accounting for nearly two-thirds of its emissions.
Greenpeace Indonesia has criticised the government for failing to commit to zero deforestation or to peatland protection and restoration in its submission to the climate summit in Paris.