Indonesia blames planters for raging wildfires and horrible air quality

Motorists ride their motorcycles through haze due to a forest fire in Palangka Raya, Central Kalimantan province, Indonesia. (Reuters pic)

JAKARTA: Almost 900,000 Indonesians suffered from an acute respiratory infection this year as noxious smoke and ash from forest fires blanketed central and western parts of the archipelago.

South Sumatra province has been the worst-affected area with 291,807 sufferers, followed by Riau with 268,591 people, according to the National Disaster Mitigation Agency.

Serious cases were also found in Jambi, West, South and Central Kalimantan, it said.

The haze is still at alarming levels even after the number of hotspots from illegal burning in Indonesia dropped Friday once artificial rains in Dumai, Riau province, and Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan, helped douse some of the fires.

The country has opened clinics and “oxygen house” at state hospitals to treat people suffering from respiratory illness and distributed masks to people in haze-affected areas.

Malaysia reported a 16% increase in people suffering from asthma this week, compared with the average over the past 10 weeks, while those suffering from conjunctivitis rose 25% in the same period, the country’s Health Ministry said Friday, citing data from 31 clinics.

The country gave out free N95 masks in states surrounding the capital, Kuala Lumpur.

Indonesia’s government said the nation’s timber and plantation industries showed a lack of commitment in preventing fires on their land as only about 22% of forestry business permit holders submitted mandatory reports on forest fire control.

The Council of Palm Oil Producing Countries defended the industry, saying oil palm plantations were generally not the source of burning.

Authorities have named more than 200 companies and farmers as responsible for starting the fires and sealed off their land holdings.

Here’s the latest:

Air pollution

The air quality levels in Kuala Lumpur and Kuching in Malaysia ranked among the world’s worst, as was the case for Jakarta, according to IQAir AirVisual pollution data on Saturday.

Kuala Lumpur’s air quality index was 180 and Kuching’s 168, levels deemed unhealthy for all, while Jakarta’s air is unhealthy for sensitive groups such as children and the elderly.

While the pollutant standard index in Singapore, which is set to host the Formula One Grand Prix this weekend, deteriorated to 92 on Saturday from 60 on Friday, the air quality remained at a moderate level, according to official figures.

The haze has also reached Cebu province in the central Philippines and Yala in Thailand.

Hotspots status

The number of hotspots in Indonesia fell to 3,443 on late Friday from 5,086 in the morning, with Kalimantan accounting for 963 fires and Sumatra 1,910 fires.

The wildfires have affected 328,724 hectares of forest and farmland in the first eight months of the year, data from the disaster mitigation agency show.

Weather forecast

There may be some relief over the next week as rains will favour northern and central Sumatra, northern Malay Peninsula, western East Malaysia and northwestern Kalimantan through Tuesday with showers elsewhere, weather forecaster Maxar said in emailed note.

Some parts of the southern Asean region may continue to experience hazy conditions, according to the Asean Specialised Meteorological Centre.