Baby girl and elderly man reported to have died because of haze in Sumatra

JAKARTA (ANN): At least two people, including an infant, are reported to have died as a result of the worsening haze situation in South Sumatra, prompting five NGOs to accuse the government of committing a serious breach of human rights for failing to control the fires in Sumatra as well as in Kalimantan.

A four-month old baby girl, whose parents are farmers living in Talang Bulu village in Banyuasin regency, in South Sumatra, died on Sunday (Sept 15) at Ar-Rasyid hospital in the provincial capital of Palembang, news website reported.

The infant girl suffered a severe respiratory problem before being rushed to the Palembang hospital, about one and a half hours drive from her home.

Another news website reported that a 59-year old man, who lived in Pekanbaru, was found dead on Aug 25, sitting against a tree in thick smog in his plantation.

The five NGOs, which included the prominent environment watchdog Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), the Indonesian Legal Aid Institute (YLBHI) and the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (Kontras), told a media briefing on Monday they had also received reports that several pregnant women in remote Hanjak Maju village in Central Kalimantan's Pulang Pisau regency also faced difficulties when they tried for evacuation to a safer place.

"So many basic rights have been breached - rights to have access to clean air, health, mobility without restraint and education," Yati Andriani, the coordinator of Kontras, told reporters.

"This is not just about the haze blocking visibility."

The NGOs demanded that the government of President Joko Widodo disclose a full list of companies and their concessions where plantation fires were spotted to promote transparent accountability, and to provide an ample emergency response to residents affected by the choking haze.

Joko, who is popularly known as Jokowi, visited Pekanbaru in Riau province on Monday to check on the impact of the haze and held a coordination meeting to better tackle the situation.

He ordered his ministers and relevant officials to not let the current condition to worsen.

“However small a fire is, quickly put it out. We have a network of officials all the way down to the village level. Whenever a fire emerged, we should have detected it, ” Joko said in the coordination meeting.

National police chief Tito Karnavian, who took a chopper ride above Pelalawan regency in Riau province, said it was apparent that the fires were deliberately started.

He said only forested areas were burning and those containing oil palm plantation and other cultivation such as pulp-wood trees remained intact.

"This indicates the burning was intended," Dr Tito was quoted as saying in a statement issued by the disaster management agency BNPB.

The statement on Monday also cited a report by the Pelalawan regent that 80 per cent of burnt forested areas were usually converted into oil palm plantations and other crops.

Pekanbaru's PM10 pollutant standard index (PSI) hit 200 points at 8am on Monday, before rising to 264 (very unhealthy) at 2pm. The reading surged to 385 at 8pm.

A reading between 151 and 250 is considered unhealthy, between 251 and 350 very unhealthy, and 351 or above hazardous. PM10 is particulate matter 10 micrometres or less in diameter.

Kontras' Yati said she and fellow activists would send an open letter to Joko on Monday, listing their demands, which includes the government revoking an appeal for a class action suit in the Supreme Court which accuses the administration of negligence in the 2015 fires.

Indonesia's highest court had upheld an earlier ruling that parts of the government were negligent. The Supreme Court decision means the government has to step up fire-prevention measures.

In the first of a two-phase appeal process, the court in its judgment, in favour of the group of citizens who filed the class action suit, ordered the government to issue more restrictive regulations to prevent fires, draw up a road map on forest-fire mitigation and emergency response, give compensation to victims as well as review concessions given to recalcitrant plantation companies.

Indonesia, home to the world's third-biggest tropical rainforest, is struggling to curb fires engulfing Sumatra and Kalimantan as the country faces a longer-than-usual dry season this year. From January to August, burnt areas totalled 328,724ha, of which 27.3 per cent were peatlands, BNPB has said.

Peat fires are harder to put out because they can keep burning underground for weeks, especially in deep peat areas. Peat fires also produce thick, acrid haze.

BNPB has mobilised 9,072 personnel to fight the raging fires, deployed 42 helicopters for water bombing missions and put on standby aircraft for cloud seeding, but on Monday, there was no potential cloud to seed to induce rain.

The haze has spread to Malaysia and Singapore, renewing fears of a repeat of the disaster in 2015. In Indonesia, 10 flights were canceled, 50 were delayed, two were diverted on Monday.

BNPB has mobilised 9,072 personnel to fight the raging fires, deployed 42 helicopters for water bombing missions and carried out cloud seeding to try to induce rain.

Despite the efforts, however, the haze has spread to Malaysia and Singapore, renewing fears of a repeat of the disaster in 2015.

In 2015, large parts of Indonesia and the surrounding region were smothered by choking haze for over a month. South-east Asia's largest economy suffered losses of about US$16.1 billion (RM67bil), BNPB said. About 500,000 people suffered respiratory illnesses.

"This is an extraordinary problem that has not been resolved for quite a long time. It has been recurring. We could at least go back to as early as 1997," said Beni Wijaya of the Jakarta-based land reform consortium KPA.

Indonesia has suffered haze episodes in most years since 1997 with the fires mostly caused by farmers and companies clearing land by illegal slash-and-burn techniques to save costs.

The 2015 haze, which reached its peak in October and was fuelled by severe drought, sent air pollution indexes to record levels across large parts of Kalimantan, Sumatra, Singapore and Malaysia.

That episode of haze is worst on record so far, surpassing the disasters in 1997 and 2013. – The Straits Times/Asia News Network

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