Haze levels ‘could be as bad as two years ago’
INDONESIA SEEKS HELP
INDONESIA warned yesterday that the haze could return with a vengeance this year and blanket Singapore and Malaysia in a repeat of what happened just two years ago.
Professor Haryono Suyono, who heads the national team for disaster relief and control, said Jakarta had “got the firm message” from Asean to curb forest and ground fires, but it could not do it without help from Singapore and Malaysia.
“The sky has no borders,” he said. “It is most unfortunate that Indonesia’s two closest neighbours will feel the brunt of the haze if we do not take preventive measures now.”
Asean environment ministers had said earlier this month that Indonesia had until mid-July to implement a zero-burning policy that required the authorities to prevent new land-clearing fires and take action against plantation owners.
There would be no penalty if Indonesia did not meet that deadline, but Asean countries were viewing it as a test of Jakarta’s resolve.
Prof Haryono said that as a result of Asean’s concern, he was instructed by President B.J. Habibie to visit Malaysia early next month to look at how both countries could prevent and fight fires.
He was also expecting to make a trip to Singapore, details of which would be finalised after he had consulted Singapore Ambassador to Indonesia Edward Lee.
He said: “It is no secret. We want help from both countries.”
In particular, Indonesia wanted them to loan aircraft for cloud-seeding operations and give technological expertise and training in monitoring forest fires.
He cited a number of reasons why the haze-inducing fires could be a major problem this year.
One was that Jakarta expected the dry season to be much longer than 1997.
“There is no El Nino, but the drought could cause small fires to turn into big ones,” he said.
Ecologists said that past fires would have increased soil erosion and made affected areas even more fire-prone, given that they would be covered with shrubbery and grassland.
Prof Haryono expected the problem to reach its peak in July and August in places such as Riau, South and North Sumatra and Bengkulu.
News reports yesterday pointed to West Kalimantan, where forest fires were raging and worsening air pollution.
A second major factor, he added, was difficulty in law enforcement. Even if there were stringent laws against land clearing by burning, farmers and plantation firms continued with this practice.
He said: “Sometimes it is difficult to change people’s mindsets. We have to remind them over and over again.”
Added to this was this new climate of political openness. “With reformasi, people are not scared of the authorities,” he said. “Many are testing the waters, which is why the problem is starting all over again.”
An environmental ministry source said enforcement was the biggest problem for the government.
“We have the laws but we cannot apply them,” he said, adding that “little action” had been taken against plantation and forest firms that had broken the law before.
There was also a lack of coordination and uneven interests between the different ministries on the matter.
He cited the lack of funds for the Environmental Impact and Management Agency, for example, to monitor and detect fires. “If in 1997, we had so many problems confronting the haze monster, you can imagine what is going to happen now with so little resources,” he said.
Two years ago, fires destroyed more than 300,000 ha of forests and enveloped the region in thick haze.