Haze crisis escalates
Syofiardi Bachyul Jb and Syamsul Huda M. Suhari
The Jakarta Post
With no sign of immediate recovery, regions enveloped by smoke produced from land and forest fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan have continued to struggle not only with the impact of deteriorating air quality, but also with the expansion of affected areas.
In West Sumatra, a Global Atmosphere Watch (GAW) station in Bukit Kototabang, Agam regency, reported that the air quality in areas around the station had dropped to the 'dangerous' zone after its level of particulate matter ( PM10 ) was measured at 436 micrograms per cubic meter (Âµg/mÂ³) on Saturday morning, the highest level recorded this year.
According to the government's existing guidelines, air quality is considered 'healthy' if its PM10 level stands below 50 Âµg/mÂ³, 'moderate' when the level stands between 50 and 150 Âµg/mÂ³, 'unhealthy' between 150 and 350 Âµg/mÂ³, 'very unhealthy' between 350 and 420 Âµg/mÂ³ and 'dangerous' when it surpasses 420 Âµg/mÂ³.
'At 10 a.m. the PM10 level in areas around the station stood at 408 Âµg/mÂ³ and quickly increased to 436 Âµg/mÂ³ by noon. Several hours later, the returned to the 'very unhealthy' level', station head Edison Kurniawan told The Jakarta Post.
Agam, home to 500,000 people, is located 100 kilometers northwest of the West Sumatra provincial capital of Padang, which has also been struggling with the impact of thick haze over the past few weeks.
Edison said the high intensity of haze in Agam had been mainly caused by the increasing number of hot spots from wildfires in southern Sumatra, including in neighboring Riau and Jambi provinces.
'Today, the air condition is very poor. Even those living in Bukittinggi are now starting to smell the smoke,' he said, referring to a popular resort city located 100 kilometers north of Padang.
Jimi Metrison, a Bukittinggi resident, said that thick haze had begun to blanket his hometown on Saturday.
'People in Sungai Puar hamlet could not see Mount Marapi, even though the distance between the area and the volcano is only 5 kilometers,' Jimi said.
Apart from West Sumatra, Riau, Jambi, South Sumatra, West Kalimantan and Central Kalimantan are among the provinces hardest hit by the air pollution originating from fires in peat land and plantations.
In Riau, the Pekanbaru Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG) detected 127 hot spots across the province on Saturday morning, an alarming situation after the province had managed to reduce hot spots to almost zero over the past two weeks.
'Pelalawan [regency] had the highest number of hot spots, 53, followed by Indragiri Hulu with 49,' Pekanbaru BMKG head Sugarin said as quoted by Antara news agency.
Of the 127 hot spots, 90, according to Sugarin, were identified as fires with a level of certainty above 70 percent.
Meanwhile in Gorontalo, hundreds of local residents and forest rangers strived on Saturday to extinguish fires raging in more than 20 hectares of a conservation forest in North Dulamayo, Gorontalo regency.
'We have put out fires on the south side of the forest and are now working to handle those in the north,' Yosef Talawo, a forest ranger, told the Post.
Worsening forest fires have also threatened some of the most biodiverse and carbon-rich ecosystems in the country, its protected forests and peat lands.
According to NASA's Active Fire Data on the Global Forest Watch Fires (GFW Fires) platform, half of the fire alerts in Riau are occurring in protected areas or those where new development is prohibited under Indonesia's national forest conversion moratorium.
A large number of fire alerts, for example, are concentrated in Riau's Tesso Nilo National Park, which has been significantly damaged by illegal encroachment in recent years.
The approximately 83,000-hectare park lost more than half of its tree cover from 2001-2013, according to Global Forest Watch data. The park is a habitat for critically endangered Sumatran elephants and tigers.
Meanwhile, the government has agreed to share with Singapore detailed information on companies responsible for land and forest fires in the country, a development that could enable Singapore to prosecute Singaporeans as well as foreign firms involved in illegal burning outside Singapore.
Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar said on Saturday that she had talked with her Singaporean counterpart, Vivian Balakrishnan, to discuss the issue.
'I told him that I would inform the public [about companies responsible for forest fires] anyway. I didn't specifically say that [we] would give [the information] to Vivian. I will send [the information] through diplomatic channels, ie through the Indonesian Foreign Minister [Retno LP Marsudi],' she told the Post.
The news came after Singaporean Foreign Minister K Shanmugam called Retno to express his deep concern over the ongoing haze crisis. He said strong action was needed against guilty companies, and urged Indonesia to share their names with Singapore.
Hans Nicholas Jong contributes to this report from Jakarta
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