Haze: Riau folk seemingly unfazed by doubly thick haze

The Star, 23 Jun 2013

PEKANBARU (Riau, Indonesia): The moment photographer Lim Cheng Kiat and I stepped out of our plane at the Sultan Syarif Kassim II Airport here, we were assailed by acrid smoke that burned our eyes and choked our lungs.

Although it was already night, the air was very warm. By the time we got into the bus taking us to our hotel, our eyes were already watery and, despite our face masks, the haze was causing a burning sensation in our noses.

However, other passengers in the bus, who did not even use face masks, seemed unperturbed by the thick and smoky air.

We had just arrived in Pekanbaru from Jakarta at abut 7.10pm Friday to cover the open burning in areas around Riau that is contributing to much of the haze problem in Malaysia in the last week.

Throughout the 7km journey to our hotel along Jalan Jenderal Sudirman in this capital city of Riau, we prayed that we would arrive safely as the visibility was very poor.

Our driver Pak Baharuddin told us that he could hardly see the vehicles in front of him, which were about 10m metres away.

Baharuddin, who has been a driver for 10 years, said locals had expected the haze to come around this time of the year.

Ya pak, kita di sini udah biasa sama kabutnya, enggak ada apa-apa yang harus khuatir (Yes sir, we are used to this smog, there is nothing to worry about),” he said.

Arriving at the four-star hotel, we were surprised to see that none of the guests and staff were wearing face masks although the air-conditioned lobby was enveloped in thick smoke. We looked out of place with our face masks on.

From our hotel window, we saw many people strolling around the hotel grounds while a small group gathered around a fountain in the courtyard, seemingly enjoying the smoky night air.

Baharuddin had told us that the haze started about a week ago and the culprits were big farming companies and smallholders.

According to him, it was normal for farmers to slash and burn and the authorities seemed powerless to stop this as it has been common practice here for as long as he could remember.

Asked why the locals did not put on face masks while outdoors, Baharuddin said they did not see the need to do so as they “could still breathe”.

At between RM2 and RM3 each, the masks were quite expensive for most of the locals, he said.

Baharuddin was surprised when told that many schools in Johor had been closed because the schools in Pekanbaru, where the situation was doubly worse, were all open.

Earlier, arriving in Jakarta from Changi Airport, we were struck by the clear and bright sky, which was in sharp contrast to the situation in Sumatra and back home where the pollutant index had tipped the 300 mark and in Singapore where it had surpassed 400.