Indonesians braced for worse drought and more fires

Dry season expected to continue until May.

THE Indonesian government is predicting that the country might face a more severe drought this year, which could mean more forest and bush fires in the sprawling archipelago.

Mr Adang Ruchianta, deputy chief of the National Disaster Control Coordinating Agency, disclosed that the dry season was expected to last longer and would be compounded by the drought-inducing El Nino climatic phenomenon.

“Earlier, we predicted that rain would fall in January,” he said, citing the results of studies conducted by research centres in Indonesia and the United States.

“Instead, what we see now is a worse drought, which is causing tens of thousands of forest area to burn.”

Indonesia faced its worst drought in half a century last year, which, coupled with man-made fires, resulted in some 265,000 ha of forest being destroyed in provinces in Sumatra and Kalimantan.

The environmental watchdog, Walhi, believed the figure was higher.

Mr Adang’s comments came amid fresh forest fires in the East Kalimantan province, a region prone to repeated fires which have destroyed thousands of hectares of forest over the last seven years.

The province has not seen any rain since a few showers early in December last year. Sources here believe that the drought is expected to last until May.

The dryness and the abundance of coal seams there led to outbreaks of fires in recent weeks, particularly in a forested area near an oil reservoir in the Balikpapan city area.

Fires were also burning stretches of bush and tall grass along the main highway linking the provincial capital of Samarinda with Balikpapan, about 95 km to the south-west.

Environmentalists, citing satellite pictures from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said that up to 15,000 ha of forest were destroyed in East Kalimantan last month and that 5,000 ha are still on fire.

The fires have cast a pall of thin haze over the province, causing flight delays and health problems for residents.

Government officials in Balikpapan, which is on high alert because of the drought and fires, said yesterday that visibility levels were now between 3,000 m and 7,000 m and that the problem appeared to be less severe than last week.

Airport authorities, who had delayed several flights because of poor visibility last week, said that there were currently no flight disruptions.

Officials said that fire-fighting efforts involved digging ditches to prevent the blazes from spreading and dousing flames with water from a few fire trucks.

The Antara news agency said yesterday that troops would be deployed to help contain the fires in areas around the Bukit Suharto forest reserve in East Kalimantan.

Hundreds of hectares around the reserve, adjacent to residential areas, had been burned.

Forestry Minister Djamaludin Suryohadikusumo said that the government was planning to hire water bombers from overseas to help douse the fires in Kalimantan amid concern expressed in some quarters here that the country’s economic crisis might limit efforts.

Mr Adang acknowledged that a lack of coordination among the various government agencies involved impinged on efforts to fight the blazes.

“Each agency has its own way of doing things,” he said.

Experts believe that coordination between the Environment, Forestry and Agriculture ministries need to be improved to prevent and put out these forest fires.

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