The Jakarta Post, 21 Jun 2013
As haze from forest fires in Sumatra wreaked havoc on the prosperous city-state of Singapore, Indonesian government has suggested an imminent downpour as the only way to bring an end to the crisis.
Forestry Ministry general secretary Hadi Daryanto said on Thursday that Indonesia could not guarantee that necessary measures taken to combat the fires would be effective without a miracle in the form of a heavy downpour.
Hadi quoted a forecast from the Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG), which predicted a downpour on June 28.
Should the rain occur, Hadi said, it would mark the end of a 10-day cyclone that had caused the wind to blow to Singapore and Malaysia. The rain would also end the weather anomalies that had made it difficult for the authorities to battle the fires, mostly centered in Riau province.
“We have considered creating artificial rain to put out the fires, but that would take two weeks. So we’ve decided to leave it in the hands of nature. And let’s just pray for that,” said Hadi.
“If there is no downpour then the haze could last for weeks, or even months, as we try to generate artificial rain,” said Hadi.
The ministry, which is responsible for preventing and combating forest fires across the archipelago, has used water bombing and deployed its special force of firefighters to extinguish fires in Riau.
Despite the difficulties, Hadi said the ministry did not see any immediate need for assistance from other countries, saying that Indonesia had “adequate funds and equipment to counter the flames”.
Air quality in Singapore, Southeast Asia’s financial center, had deteriorated to a record “hazardous level” by Thursday, worse than the pollution levels recorded in the 1997 haze crisis.
Investment bank Barclays Plc. said in a note that Singapore would suffer an immediate hit to tourism as retailers, hotels, restaurants, gaming and other tourism-related sectors made up as much as 6 percent of the country’s economy.
“We think arrivals will recover quickly when the haze dissipates,” it said in the report. “But the situation is fluid — prolonged hazardous conditions could affect Singapore’s international reputation.”
The illegal burning of forest to clear land for palm oil plantations and peatland blazes triggered by
the dry season in Sumatra and Kalimantan have become an annual problem for neighboring Singapore and Malaysia.
Environment Minister Balthasar Kambuaya said he had identified five companies behind the forest fires, but refused to name them.
Riau Andalan Pulp and Paper, which is operating in the impacted areas, said it had teamed up with nearby residents to put out the flames.
“But regarding whether we have contributed to the fires or not, we have to assert that we practice a ‘no-burning’ policy. The forest is so big that anyone could burn it without being caught,” said the company’s spokesman, Djarot Handoko.
As the fires and haze rage on, local authorities have evacuated more than 70 families residing near impacted areas in Bengkalis, Riau, according to the regency’s Disaster Mitigation Agency head, Ja’far Arif.
He said that more than 3,000 hectares of forest area and plantations had been engulfed by fire, and that the blaze was approaching the settlement of Tanjung Leban village.
“Putting out the widespread fire is no longer possible. We’d rather set a block around settlements to prevent the fire from burning homes,” said Ja’far.
Bengkalis, along with Dumai municipality and Pelalawan regency, are the worst-impacted areas, according to Riau Disaster Mitigation Agency. “No one knows when the fires will abate. The problem is just too big to handle. We need more and immediate help from the central government,” said the agency’s head, Said Saqlul Amri.
The Dumai municipality, a base for US energy giant Chevron, has set the highest level of pollution warning due to the haze.
Authorities have suspended flights to and from Pinang Kampai Airport in Dumai as a result of deteriorating visibility. “Sky Aviation has suspended flights until June 27, while Pelita Air is not operating until July 7,” said the airport manager Catur Hargowo.
The impact of the haze on Chevron, which operates Indonesia’s largest oil production activities in Riau, remains unknown.
Presidential spokesman for foreign affairs Teuku Faizasyah said that the haze problem would not affect Indonesia-Singapore diplomatic ties.
“The two countries’ diplomatic relationship has been proven to be tough. We have been through numerous and various challenges, and yet, we managed to address those challenges well with a mature approach.”
Bagus BT Saragih, Sri Wahyuni and Fadli contributed to this story.