50,000 Riau residents may be evacuated

Jakarta to adopt tougher steps to tackle haze
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INDONESIAN Environment Minister Sarwono Kusumaatmadja yesterday recommended that Rengat city in the Riau province, with a population of 50,000 people, be evacuated immediately due to the worsening smog.

The measure came as he underlined that the time had come for drastic measures to be taken at home – including tightening enforcement measures and cracking down on more companies that violated a ban on using fire to clear land.

He also made a pitch for greater cooperation with Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei – three neighbouring countries affected by the haze – to join efforts to fight the problem. “This is a time for a review of everything,” he said on the second day of a three-day meeting in Jakarta, where Asean environment ministers have gathered to discuss the haze and other issues.

In particular, he noted that there was a “big problem in enforcing the law” as there was a constant battle to get individuals and companies to respect it.

He said the country had been operating in a “crisis mode” for the last five months and Indonesia now had a “moral obligation” to show its neighbours that it was doing its best to fight the fires.

In Kuala Lumpur, Information Minister Datuk Mohamed Rahmat, speaking after the Cabinet discussed measures to tackle the haze, warned that up to two million people in the capital and surrounding areas would have to be evacuated should the Air Pollution Index (API) hit the 500 level.

The index in the city stood at 152 yesterday evening – regarded as an “unhealthy” level. It had surged past the “hazardous” level of 300 on several occasions the previous two days.

Forest fires from provinces in Sumatra and Kalimantan have been blamed for the haze, which has enveloped the region and posed health, navigation and other problems for neighbouring countries.

The Malaysian evacuation scenario was, however, not an immediate likelihood, unlike in Rengat on Sumatra island. Mr Sarwono said the air quality and visibility in Rengat had become so bad that he would ask a national coordinating board to evacuate the city “right away”.

He also vowed that there would be a “total relook” of current regulations in the country to tackle problems associated with the haze, and said this would come about once President Suharto approved an Environmental Bill passed in Parliament last month.

The Bill promises tougher measures against polluters by allowing the government to seize assets or close down the activities of those convicted of damaging the environment.

It also imposes stiffer penalties, with a maximum 15 years’ jail and a 250 million rupiah (S$146,700) fine as compared to the current maximum 10-year jail sentence and a maximum 100 million rupiah fine.

Mr Sarwono said it was also necessary to reform land use policies and tighten up on licensing of plantation firms which engaged in land clearing.

Directing a broadside against companies that engaged in land clearing by burning – banned earlier this month – he said the government would strike even harder against violators and “shame them by revealing their names”.

In addition to prosecuting firms, the government would also get them to foot the bill for its efforts to clear the haze, for example, through cloud seeding operations, which the Indonesian air force began wednesday.

Mr Sarwono, flanked by Singapore Health and Environment Minister Yeo Cheow Tong and Malaysia’s Science, Technology and Environment Minister Law Hieng Ding, said Indonesia had invited the two countries to send representatives on attachment to its national coordinating agency for controlling land and forest fires.

In Malaysia, Datuk Mohamed Rahmat said that given that an evacuation might be needed, “we might have to conduct an exercise to prevent chaos”.

The Malaysian Cabinet also decided yesterday to ban all forms of open burning and directed all agencies concerned, including the police, to take tough measures against violators.

Datuk Mohamed, who chairs the National Disasters Management Committee, said the media would be mobilised to raise awareness among the people to stop burning rubbish.

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