Suharto declares forest fires, pollution a national disaster
INDONESIA’S President Suharto yesterday declared the raging forest and land fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan and its choking pollution a national disaster.
Coordinating Minister of People’s Welfare Azwar Anas, who also heads the national team for disaster relief and control, told reporters that Mr Suharto had issued the order amid concerns that the haze, blanketing parts of Indonesia and neighbouring countries, was affecting national development.
“This is a national disaster,” said Mr Azwar after a meeting with the Indonesian leader. But he stopped short of declaring it a national emergency amid widespread speculation that there would be one, given the gravity of the situation.
“This does not mean that this situation is in a condition of emergency,” he stressed, noting that Riau, Jambi, South Sumatra, Lampung, and East, West, South and Central Kalimantan were now on “first alert” or in a “state of danger”.
He said that the aim now was to battle the fires and help those affected by the worsening smog.
He said that the government had prepared contingency plans to rescue some 20 million Indonesians affected by the disaster and would evacuate them if necessary.
He did not identify the areas to be evacuated except to say that they would be the ones worst hit by the fires and haze.
Observers here believe they are likely to be Riau, Jambi, Lampung and West Kalimantan where environment ministry officials said the visibility range was below 100m and the Pollution Standard Index was “more than 300 points”.
State Secretary Moerdiono said separately that Mr Suharto had “called on all levels of society to work together and mobilise themselves to overcome this national disaster”.
The President’s call came against the background of military troop deployment in the affected provinces of Sumatra and Kalimantan to fight the blazes.
More than 50,000 armed forces personnel are said to be involved in the fire-fighting efforts.
Forestry Minister Djamaludin Suryohadikusumo said that the government had allocated 3.1 billion rupiah (S$1.6 million) to combat the fires and was deploying over 8,400 professional fire fighters in the affected provinces.
They will be joined by a Malaysian task force of more than 1,000 fire fighters dispatched to fire spots in Dumai, Jambi and South Sumatra. The severity of the problem has also prompted help from other countries.
The Indonesian government has identified more than 100 hotspots where fires are raging beyond control in Sumatra and Kalimantan and are said to have destroyed more than 300,000 ha of forest.
But environmentalists believe that this is a conservative estimate and that nearly 800,000ha could have been affected so far and up to two million ha could be destroyed in three months’ time if the fires are not controlled.
Dr Syed Babar Ali, the head of the World Wide Fund for Nature, told reporters here yesterday that the scale of the fires “is so big that it is an international catastrophe going well beyond the borders of Indonesia”.
Meanwhile, reports from Miri, an oil-rich town in Sarawak, said heavy rain and thunderstorm helped clear some of the smog shrouding the eastern Malaysian state for the past two weeks. The Air Pollutant Index in the state, which is in its seventh day of a haze emergency, eased to 528 yesterday evening.
The haze reduced visibility in some southern provinces in Thailand to about 500 metres. But Brunei’s skies were relatively clear and in Manila, officials said the effect of the haze was not expected to reach dangerous levels in the Philippines.