Haze Threatens to Return as Riau Burns Again
Singapore and Indonesian officials traded barbs on Tuesday as the haze crisis that cast a shadow on the two countries’ relations in June threatened to reemerge.
“An exercise in frustration — big increase in hot spots (488) in Sumatra today,” Singapore’s Minister for Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan said on Facebook. “We have been spared so far because of wind direction.”
Air quality in Singapore remained at “good” levels on Tuesday afternoon, within a range of 26-35. Singapore’s air degraded to “very hazardous” levels on June 21, breaking 400 on the Pollutant Standards Index, the city state’s National Environment Agency reported.
“We remain at risk,” Balakrishnan said. “Have to keep up the pressure on Indonesian authorities and companies to do the right thing for the sake of their own citizens and ours.”
The head of Singapore’s National Environment Agency, Ronnie Tay, said he had spoken with his counterparts in Indonesia about the acute increase in hotspots.
Tay wrote in a public release that meteorological forecasts for the next few days predicted southerly and southeasterly winds flowing over the Strait of Malacca. A shift to a more southwesterly wind direction could, however, bring haze back to Singapore.
Forestry Ministry spokesman Sumarto confirmed to the Jakarta Globe on Tuesday that the number of hotspots was increasing, but denied the total was as high as the 488 reported by Lion City authorities.
“According to the [Forestry Ministry's interpretation of images provided by the] National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration [NOAA], there are 265 hotspots as of this morning,” he said. “Yesterday, 101 hotspots were recorded — a major jump from last week’s 19-25 hotspots.”
The difference between Singapore and Indonesia’s hotspot figures are more instructive of the two countries’ differing methodology, not of an attempt to overdo or underplay the situation on the ground in Sumatra.
Yopita Gustini, a resident of Pekanbaru, Riau, said visibility had worsened to less than 500 meters.
“I had to turn on the car lamps even in the morning when I was driving in,” Yopita told the Jakarta Globe. “I drove really slowly out of fear for my safety.”
Air quality on Tuesday was not as debilitating as Riau residents saw in June, she said.
“It’s not as bad as the last time, but what makes me afraid is that it has not been raining the past few days,” Yopita said. “If the weather and the temperature persist, I’m afraid the fire will be just as big as the last time.”
The 30-year-old added that she had begun wearing a face mask three days ago because she had started to experience a degree of respiratory difficulty.
Yopita called on the government to instigate greater weather-modification efforts in the province.
“Don’t wait until weeks later,” she said.
The Indonesian government was criticized during the peak of the haze crisis for the lack of speed with which it took action against hotspots in Sumatra.
As firefighters struggled to stay ahead of the curve in June, the government ordered the National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) to seed the clouds above Riau province — a method used to create artificial rain — and drop water from agency helicopters’ Bambi buckets.
BNPB spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho confirmed that the government was acting in Riau.
“Today there was water-bombing in Pelalawan with one Boco and one Sikorsky helicopter,” he said. “They can carry 4,500 liters per flight.”
Thick smoke over Pekanbaru disrupted flights at the Riau capital’s international airport — only one flight was able to land yesterday at Sultan Syarif Kasim airport. Planes were instead diverted to nearby airports in Medan and Batam.
The Indonesian government confirmed that the Sumatra hotspots were once again caused by slash-and-burn clearance of land — the easiest way to make way for, primarily, palm oil plantations.
“99 percent of the hotspots were caused by individuals or groups,” Sutopo said.
Despite international outcry over the extent of slash-and-burn only weeks ago, Indonesia’s Forestry Ministry said the practice continued to thrive.
“More places are burning because of a rise in temperature and the lack of rain over the past few weeks,” Sumarto said. “Some underground fires that were already burning flared up again, and local people are also burning forest to clear land.”
Sumarto called the hotspots a disaster, and asked that the government be given more time by the people of Sumatra and Singapore to address the intractability of the problem.
“It’s difficult to prevent people from using traditional methods of land clearing,” he said. “It takes a long time for them stop.”
At least one Riau resident believes this a tradition that needs to be nixed.
“What’s even more important is the law enforcement,” Yopita said. “I hope the government will take serious action against those who started the fire, because spending money on artificial rain will not do anything as long as these people keep burning the forest.”