Indonesia’s yellow peril


Toxic skies: Children playing by the riverbanks in Palangkaraya city. — AFP

PALANGKARAYA: First, it was thick, white smog, causing coughs and sore throats. Then, it turned into a thick, acrid yellow, casting an apocalyptic glow over Palangkaraya, central Kalimantan, leaving many dead and forcing people to breathe from oxygen tanks.

Thousands are now fleeing the area to escape the toxic air in the city of 240,000 that has been engulfed in poisonous darkness by smoke from peat land set alight to clear land for palm oil plantations.

Kartika Sari decided to grab her three-year-old daughter and flee the city that is now in the epicentre of the haze crisis smothering South-East Asia.

“The smoke was no longer white, it was yellow,” the 32-year-old pharmacist said from an evacuation centre in Banjarmasin, a six-hour drive from Palangkaraya.

“Usually we just endure it, even though we had headaches and felt nauseous. But it has gotten so bad lately that I can’t take it any more. I can’t breathe.”

Now she waits in limbo in a basic shelter with nine other evacuees, mostly children, including a one-year-old boy suffering from severe cough and diarrhoea.

Authorities say the fires from slash-and-burn farming in Borneo and neighbouring Sumatra have killed 10 people so far, some of whom died while fighting the blazes and others from the pollution.

Respiratory illnesses in Palangkaraya have soared as the choking smog has worsened in recent weeks. Mass evacuations – especially of children and those suffering chronic respiratory illnesses – were not out of the question, said Indonesian military spokesman Tatang Sulaiman.

Three warships carrying medical teams, tents, cooking stoves and protective masks were on their way to the worst-affected regions in Kalimantan – Indonesia’s half of Borneo – and Sumatra, he said, to help build temporary shelters away from the haze-plagued cities.

“Our warships are ready to evacuate residents, whether to these temporary shelters, or even to take them on board. We are prepared for that,” he said.

While many have relocated to safety elsewhere with friends and relatives, others have no choice but to stay behind despite the risks posed by the noxious haze.

Rahmah, a 39-year-old street vendor in Palangkaraya, said she needed to keep doing her job to pay her children’s school fees, despite the toll on her health.

“I have to stay whether I like it or not. My livelihood is here so how can I leave?” — AFP

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