JAKARTA (Jakarta Post/ANN): Fires raging across forests in Sumatra and Kalimantan during 2023’s prolonged El Nino climate phenomenon have covered major cities in the Indonesian regions with haze, raising concerns that the smoke could cross international borders.
In South Kalimantan, the situation worsened to the point that thick haze blanketed Syamsudin Noor International Airport in Banjarmasin city, and at least six flights due to depart on Friday morning had to be rescheduled.
“We delayed the flights scheduled between 6am and 8.20am because visibility was limited to only around 100m,” airport spokesman Iwan Risdianto said on Friday, as quoted by Antara news agency. Of the six rescheduled flights, four were headed for Jakarta, one to Surabaya and one to Balikpapan.
In Central Kalimantan’s provincial capital, the Palangkaraya administration handed out masks to schoolchildren for their health as the city’s air quality had declined over the past few days.
“Recently, every morning, we have been blanketed by haze from peatland and forest fires. We also see a lot of schoolchildren who are not wearing face masks,” Pahandut district head Berlianto said on Tuesday, Antara reported.
In south-eastern Sumatra, the environmental agency of the provincial capital Jambi said air quality in the city from Monday to Wednesday was rated “unhealthy” owing to haze from wildfires burning in surrounding regencies.
The thick haze prompted the Indonesian Red Cross to set up “oxygen houses” for storing supplies of oxygen in anticipation of haze-related health issues.
Meanwhile, the Jambi Education Agency ordered all schools in the city to mandate masks for students and reduce outdoor activities.
In South Sumatra, thick haze from fires that blanketed the provincial capital of Palembang also prompted schools to hand out masks to their students, while the city administration is considering closing schools temporarily.
The South Sumatra Disaster Mitigation Agency said it was ramping up fire mitigation efforts, especially to fight peatland fires in Ogan Komering Ilir regency that were the source of the haze enveloping Palembang.
Data from the Environment and Forestry Ministry showed that fires had burned through at least 90,405ha of peatlands and forests across the country between January and July 2023.
Indonesia battled devastating forest fires in 2015 and 2019 that produced massive haze which blanketed the country and parts of South-east Asia.
In 2019, fires razed at least 1.6 million ha, mostly in South Sumatra, Central Kalimantan and West Kalimantan, causing transboundary haze events in Singapore, Brunei and Peninsular Malaysia, and reached as far north as Thailand and Vietnam
In Indonesia, the fires led to combined losses of around US$5.2 billion (S$7.1 billion) for the economies of eight provinces, according to the World Bank. On the sidelines of the recently concluded 43rd Asean Summit, the regional bloc on Tuesday introduced the Asean Coordinating Centre for Transboundary Haze Pollution Control, based in Jakarta, to combat the problem.
Indonesian Environment Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar said the centre would develop an early warning system so Asean member states could coordinate on preventing haze from crossing borders. She added that Indonesia would also continue its efforts to prevent wildfires.
Indonesia’s Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysical Agency (BMKG) has warned that El Nino had not only brought dry weather to the country but also delayed the rainy season in several regions.
The BMKG forecast that the rainy season would be delayed by around 30 days in more than half of the country, mostly in the southern regions of Sumatra and Kalimantan, and in parts of Java, Nusa Tenggara, Bali, Sulawesi and Maluku.
The rainy season is expected to start in November across most of the country, but conditions in 2023 have the potential to exacerbate drought in regions below the equator, especially Java, which is home to more than 150 million people, and Bali and Nusa Tenggara.
“We advise all stakeholders, the people, ministries and agencies, as well as regional administrations, to be alert and to anticipate the impacts of hydrometeorological disasters,” BMKG head Dwikorita Karnawati told a virtual press briefing on Friday.
Earlier, the agency said 2023’s dry season was expected to be the most severe since 2019, partly because of the return of El Nino. - THE JAKARTA POST/ASIA NEWS NETWORK