Haze knows no border. In this current dry season with extreme hot weather, Sumatra is being hit by forest, peatland and plantation fires producing smog haze that has been affecting not only the island, but also Malaysia and Singapore.
Almost every year forest fires hit several Indonesian islands, particularly Sumatra and Kalimantan. Some of them were deliberately set to clear land for cultivation and some are triggered by natural factors such as extreme drought that could induce hot spots in peatland.
But this year, the disaster is among the worst, forcing some districts and cities in Riau Province to declare a state of emergency.
The NOAA-15 satellite detected 234 hot spots across Sumatra, particularly in Riau, Jambi and North Sumatra Provinces on June 29. Meanwhile, the local meteorological, climatology an geophysics agency (BMKG) indicated around 1,403 hot spots across Sumatra.
Around 850 hectares of peatland areas were gutted by fires, but at least 460 hectares were put out by Indonesian fire brigade teams. According to recent reports, one person was killed and another was injured due to the disaster.
In Rokan Hilir District, Riau Province, 164 people fled Kepenghuluan Bangko Bakti village which has been blanketed by thick haze. Villagers of neighboring Kepenghuluan Teluk Bano are also preparing themselves for evacuation to emergency tents away from their village.
"Based on our monitoring, a huge fire is raging in Bangko Pusako Sub District. Efforts to extinguish the fire have been going on by involving volunteers," Head of the Rokan Hilir Environmental Assessment Unit Zulkarnaen said.
He said the fire brigade team has been working extremely hard but it was not easy to put out the fire. "I hope rains to fall very soon to help extinguish the blaze," he added.
Several flights were postponed or cancelled and Sultan Syarif Kasim (SSK) II Airport in Pekanbaru, Riau Island, was shut down temporarily due to the haze on June 20.
Thousands of face masks have been distributed to Sumatran people who have complained of respiratory problem and eye irritation because of the haze.
The smoky haze from Sumatra has also affected Indonesia`s neighboring countries. Singapore has urged people to remain indoors amid unprecedented levels of air pollution, while Malaysia has closed 200 schools and banned open burning in some areas.
The Pollutant Standards Index, Singapore`s main measure for air pollution, surged to a record reading of 371, breaching the "hazardous" classification that can aggravate respiratory ailments. The previous all-time high before this week was in 1997, when the index reached 226.
"This is now the worst haze that Singapore has ever faced," Singapore`s Environment Minister Vivian Balakrishnan wrote on his Facebook page.
Singapore alerted Indonesia on the situation "and urged the Indonesian authorities to look into urgent measures to mitigate the transboundary haze occurrence".
In Malaysia, The Department of Environment (DoE) reported that Muar, Johor was the worst affected by the haze, with the Air Pollutant Index (API) reading at 383 on June 20, forcing the temporary closure of 211 schools in the district.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said on his Facebook page: "The haze situation in Malaysia is going to worsen in the coming days with winds carrying smoke from hot spots in Sumatra. "Please reduce outdoor activity and drink a lot of water during this period. Health should remain a number one priority for everyone."
Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, who had been contacted by his Singaporean counterpart concerning the haze, said in a press conference on June 19, 2013 that the way forward and out of the haze situation is to work together to solve the issue.
"The approach must be one of collaboration and partnership, not one of apportioning blame here and there. Let`s focus on putting the fires out," he was quoted as saying by the Jakarta Post.
Indonesian Environmental Affairs Minister Balthasar Kambuaya said that his side was trying to put out fires on peatland and considering to use artificial rain to extinguish fire hot spots in three-to-four-meter deep peatland.
But it seems that Indonesia does not have to battle the fires alone as Singapore and Malaysia have reportedly offered their help.
Singapore`s Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan conveyed the offer to assist Indonesia, Simon Soekarno of the Indonesian embassy`s information department, in Singapore told Antara on June 20.
The details of the assistance, however, were not known yet. The Indonesian government welcomed any assistance to control the fires, he added.
"It has become our common concern, not only Singapore. The Indonesian government will not stay idle," the diplomat said.
The CEO of Singapore`s National Environment Agency was scheduled to hold an emergency meeting with officials from the Indonesian environmental and foreign affairs ministries on June 20 to discuss about the haze problem. "They might discuss about the details of assistance being offered by Singapore," he said.
Bernama news agency reported that Malaysia is willing to offer assistance to Indonesia in addressing open burning in Sumatra. Deputy Minister of Natural Resources and Environment Datuk Dr James Dawos Mamit said the offer was not the first made by this country as similar offers had been made.
"We always want to help Indonesia and is willing to send our fire brigade to put out fires as we did before. We already talked about this to them but no response was received," he told reporters on June 20, 2013.
The Malaysian firemen were deployed to Sumatra to fight off the forest fire in 1997. Over 1,000 firefighters were deployed to Indonesia under Operation Haze. When similar situation occurred in 2005, the air forces of Malaysia and Singapore joined hand with their Indonesian counterpart to conduct a coordinated cloud seeding operations.
Indonesian Coordinating Minister for People`s Welfare Agung Laksono said investigations were under way to find out which companies were responsible for the haze.
"There are Indonesian, Singaporean and Malaysian companies there," he said.
Singapore earlier reportedly urged Indonesia to provide data on companies and concession maps to enable it to act against plantation firms that allow slash-and-burn farming.
Separately, the Indonesian forestry ministry`s Secretary General Hadi Daryanto expressed the ministry`s readiness to partner Singapore to trace the firms behind the fires in Riau.
"We are keen to join with neighboring countries to identify the perpetrators; and the sanctions imposed will be imprisonment, fines and permit revocations," Hadi said.
As a number of companies operating in the area are from Singapore and Malaysia, the two countries also need to cooperate in helping them track down and prevent future blazes, he added.
Rahidi, the head of the Riau forestry ministry`s forest fire section, said fires hitting Riau Province started partly in plantations owned by Malaysia`s companies.
Based on the NOAA satellite`s monitoring, the hot spots occurred among other things in PT Langgam Inti Hibrida owned by Malaysian company and located in Sering, Pelalawan District.
Several other hot spots were located in two plantations which are owned by PT Bumi Reksa Nusa Sejati of Malaysia and located in Simpang Kateman, Pelagiran Sub District and Bente, Mandah Sub District, Indragiri Hilir.
He said a number of hot spots also came from Malaysia`s companies operating in the province such as PT Tunggal Mitra Plantation, PT Udaya Loh Dinawi, PT Abdi Plantation, PT Jati Jaya Perkasa, PT Multi Gambut Industry, PT Bumi Reksa Nusa Sejati and PT Mustika Agro Lestari.
Fires also occurred in an industrial forest area owned by PT Riau Andalan Pulp and Paper (RAPP) which is partly owned by a foreign company, he added.
Meanwhile, Indonesia`s Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) has set aside Rp25 billion (around 2.5 million US Dollar) to make artificial rain over forest fires in Riau Province.
Head of Data and Information Center of BNPB Sutopo Purwo Nugroho said BNPB in cooperation with the Application and Assessment of Technology Agency (BPPT) will make the artificial rain over the forest fires.
He said the NOAA-18 satellite on June 18 detected 148 hotspots over Riau Province, 26 over Jambi, 22 over West Sumatra, six over South Sulawesi and five hotspots over West Sumatra.
The satellite also detected some hotspots over neighboring countries such as Malaysia with eight hotspots and 29 hotspots spread over Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. There were also 17 hotspots over Myanmar.
As many as 105 personnel have been deployed in fire-hit areas and they have managed to extinguish over 650 hectares of the peatland fires, he stated.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono on June 20, 2013, ordered all ministries and relevant institutions to put out forest fires in Sumatra within one month maximally.
"The President has given us directives that hot spots and haze in Sumatra should be dealt with immediately," Chief Economic Minister Hatta Rajasa told a press conference after a cabinet ministers` plenary meeting. (Antara)