Fires raging across forests in Sumatra and Kalimantan during 2023’s 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 on Friday had to be rescheduled.
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, 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 hectares, 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$5.2bil for the economies of eight provinces, according to the World Bank.
On the sidelines of the recent 43rd Asean Summit, the regional bloc 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 said Indonesia would also continue its efforts to prevent wildfires. — The Jakarta Post/ANN