Malaysia complains of haze from Indonesia as forest fires flare

A thick blanket of haze shrouds Kuching September 6, 2019. — Bernama pic
A thick blanket of haze shrouds Kuching September 6, 2019. — Bernama pic

KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 6 — Malaysia’s Science Ministry will urge Indonesia to take immediate action to fight haze, it said today, as Jakarta detected a spike in the number of hot spots indicating worsening forest fires across the archipelago.

During the dry season, Indonesian farmers use fire to clear land, often for palm and pulp plantations, but the flames can rage out of control to produce a choking haze that spreads to neighbours like Singapore and Malaysia.

A mild El Nino weather pattern this year has aggravated the impact of fires, with the number of hot spots rising to the highest since devastating fires in 2015.

In a statement, Malaysia’s Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation said it would “send a diplomatic note to Indonesia, so immediate action will be taken to put out the fires and prevent repeated burning”.

A spokesman for Indonesia’s foreign ministry, Teuku Faizasyah, declined immediate comment, but said he would check if Jakarta had received the note.

Indonesia faces global pressure to put an end to slash-and-burn clearance of land, especially as fires have also burned swathes of the Amazon and parts of Africa.

By this morning, disaster officials in Indonesia had detected 6,312 hot spots, which often signal a fire, dotting the western and central areas of its part of Borneo island. That was up from 2,694 a day ago and less than 1,000 earlier this month.

“This is the height of the dry season, hence the height of the number of hot spots,” Agus Wibowo, a spokesman for Indonesia’s disaster mitigation agency, said by text message.

The number had risen from yesterday as many had previously been obscured by smoke, he added.

Indonesia has deployed more than 9,000 military, police and disaster agency personnel to douse the fires, having declared an emergency in six provinces on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo.

South-east Asia has suffered for years from annual bouts of smog caused by slash-and-burn practices in Indonesia’s islands of Sumatra and Kalimantan, but governments in the region have failed to stamp out the problem.

Transboundary haze was detected yesterday spreading from the Indonesian province of West Kalimantan on Borneo to the island’s Malaysian side, Indonesia’s climate agency said.

Haze reduced visibility to a distance of 10 to 20 metres in the town of Sampit in Indonesia’s province of Central Kalimantan on Borneo, media said.

The town’s air quality index hit 356 by midday today, a hazardous level, according to the non-profit World Air Quality Index.

“I implore the whole community not to burn land,” local government head Supian Hadi said, according to state news agency Antara. “The impact has been very disturbing to the wider community, on health, education and economic activity.”

An aerial photograph from the news agency showed fires had reignited in the national parks of Berbak and Sembilang in Jambi on Sumatra, despite having been put out several days earlier.

Drought has hit large parts of Indonesia as El Nino disrupts the dry season, which is expected to last until October, the climate agency says. — Reuters