Indonesian authorities in several provinces in Sumatera and Borneo islands are struggling to control forest fires that have been razing vast areas in the past three weeks, causing schools to close down and the cancellations of flights.
The forest fires have also inflicted acute respiratory infections (ISPA) on thousands of people as air quality in neighboring Malaysia and Singapore plummeted to dangerous levels. Many are beginning to compare the situation with 2015, when Indonesia spewed more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere each day than all US economic activity for the same period, according to environmental watchdog the World Resources Institute (WRI).
CNN Indonesia reported that a four-year old infant in Palembang, South Sumatra, died of acute respiratory infection on Sunday. The infant, Elsa Pitaloka, was treated with oxygen at the ICU of the Ar-Rasyid hospital in Palembang for several hours before she passed away. Lilis Alice, a resident in Palangka Raya, Central Kalimantan, told BBC Indonesia, that she has had to close down all ventilation at her house in the past two weeks to avoid choking from the smog.
“I feel like living above the clouds. It’s always so dark at home, so I have to put on the lights even in the morning,” Lilis told BBC Indonesia.
Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar said the government had sealed off 42 concessions, including land owned by four Malaysian palm oil companies and one Singaporean company, for causing land and forest fires in Riau and West Kalimantan.
She named the four Malaysian companies as West Kalimantan-based Sime Indo Agro, a unit of Sime Darby Plantation Bhd; Sukses Karya Sawit, a unit of IOI Corp Bhd; Rafi Kamajaya Abadi, a unit of TDM Bhd; and Riau-based Adei Plantation and Industry, a unit of Kuala Lumpur Kepong Group.
The spat over the smog has turned into a blame game between authorities of the two countries over the past week.
Malaysia’s Primary Industries Minister Teresa Kok in a statement made in Ho Chi Minh last week said that checks by her ministry showed that the named Malaysian companies had adhered and adopted sustainable cultivation practices as required by several non-profit and certification organizations.
“From our records, the four named Malaysian companies are among the most respected oil palm cultivators. They have already prescribed to and adopted certified sustainable cultivation practices, let it be through MSPO (Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil certification), RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil), ISCC (International Sustainability and Carbon Certification) or a combination of these internationally recognized certification systems,” Kok was quoted as saying by The New Strait Times.
Head of the National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) Lt. Gen. Doni Monardo, Indonesian Military (TNI) commander Air Chief Marshal Hadi Tjahjanto and National Police chief General Tito Karnavian flew off to Riau on Sunday to look into the land and forest fires there.
Authorities said they have had a hard time dousing fires as dropping water bombs were not enough to cover the vast area of land affected and that the extensive scale of the fire would require rain. The rainy season is predicted to come in October and weather modification methods to make artificial rain have not been possible in several regions due to the minimum quantity of clouds.
“We’ve deployed 42 helicopters to douse the peatland fires with the support of the private sector, military, and Environment and Forestry Ministry, but it doesn’t guarantee that the fires could be put out,” he said as quoted by The Jakarta Post. Monardo has also encouraged local governments in the affected provinces to step up their effort in combating the annual problem.
Data compiled by the Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG) showed that Riau and Central Kalimantan have seen notable increases in hotspots as of Saturday compared to 2015, when the country saw the deadly haze crisis. Riau saw 5,630 hotspots in 2019, higher than the 4,965 hotspots in 2015, while a spike was observed in Central Kalimantan with 11,455 hotspots this year compared to 6,156 hotspots in 2015.
According to the BMKG’s Himawari-8 satellite images as of Saturday afternoon, the smog had engulfed Riau, Jambi, South Sumatra, West Sumatra, Riau Islands, Kalimantan and neighboring Peninsular Malaysia, Sarawak of Malaysia and Singapore. BMKG’s chairwoman Dwikorita Karnawati said satellite records showed that transboundary haze from the country had entered parts of Malaysia and Singapore.
Global Forest Watch Fires, an online platform monitoring fires, including in Indonesia, showed that while in Riau, in the central part of Sumatra and one hardest hit by the forest and ground fires, fires in palm oil plantation only accounted for seven percent of the total, with the majority while pulpwood plantation accounted for 30 percent. The rest were in logging areas, one percent and the majority in non-concession areas.
In Central Kalimantan province, the hardest hit in Kalimantan, palm oil concessions hosted 14 percent of the fires while the vast majority, 84 percent were found in non-concession areas. However, 73 percent of the fires area were in peatland, the statistics said.