People flee Sumatra’s ‘unbearable’ smog

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Indonesian women cover their faces as they disembark from a boat on a hazy day in Sumatra on Wednesday. ABDUL QODIR/AFP

Fatimahtuzzuhra El-Karim and her family have abandoned their house in a residential area of Kampar regency, Riau, and fled to the Indonesian city of Binjai in North Sumatra over concerns for their health, as hazardous smog from widespread forest fires is spreading uncontrollably.

The 26-year-old said she had been staying at her parents’ house in Binjai for the past three weeks together with her husband and their eighteen-month-old son.

“We have taken shelter at my parents’ house because the smog was unbearable. We will only go back home once the air is clear,” she said on Tuesday.

Fatimah said this was the worst smog she had experienced over the past two years, or since they moved to the Puri Indah Kualu housing complex in Tambang district, located some 3km from one of the hot spots in the province.

She said many of her neighbours had also left to stay with relatives in Medan or Padang in West Sumatra as the haze worsened.

She recalled that residents had been affected by the haze since July, but at that time, the haze was still thin and not too disturbing.

However, as it turned into thick smog blanketing Kampar in August, residents opted to stay indoors to avoid exposure, before many eventually left the area for health reasons.

Another Riau resident, who lives in the provincial capital of Pekanbaru, Prayogi Werdi, 48, plans to leave for Medan to escape the smoke but has not yet gained permission from his employer.

State-owned airport operator Angkasa Pura II noted an increase in the number of passengers travelling from Sultan Syarif Kasim II International Airport in Riau to Kualanamu International Airport in North Sumatra since the forest fires intensified.

“We don’t know whether there is any relation between the passenger spike and the smog, but the fact is that the number of passengers flying to North Sumatra from Riau has increased drastically,” said Angkasa Pura II Kualanamu branch spokesperson Wisnu Budi Setianto.

Thick smog has blanketed parts of Sumatra and Kalimantan for weeks as a result of widespread wildfires that have seen hundreds of thousands of people suffer from acute respiratory infections.

A four-month-old infant has reportedly died of pneumonia and meningitis due to the haze crisis in South Sumatra.

In Riau, more than 100 residents took shelter at health posts set up by the authorities, seeking to protect their children’s health.

Mimi, 35, first visited the health post on Jl Soekarno Hatta in Pekanbaru with her two children to ask for respiratory aids. She later decided to stay at the post for its fresher air.

“The condition here is far better than in our house. We, unavoidably, let the smog enter our house as we opened the air ventilation,” Mimi said, as reported by kompas.com, adding that her 2-month-old baby was suffering from shortness of breath and cough because of the smog.

The Riau administration has set up at least 14 health posts across the province to help residents in the smog crisis.

A coalition of civil society organisations, Pantau Gambut, revealed that the number of hot spots in Riau had tripled to 3,932 from July to August. That compares to 1,862 hot spots recorded in the 2015 fire season, which had been the worst-ever haze crisis in the region.

Data compiled by the Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG) show the country has seen 45,206 hot spots this year as of Saturday. That number is lower than the 85,514 recorded in 2015 but higher than the 27,212 of 2018.

The National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) believes this year’s wildfires are likely to surpass those of 2015 should the dry season continue until next month – as predicted by the BMKG.

President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, who visited Riau on Monday evening and performed istisqa (mass prayer to ask for rainfall), highlighted the importance of early hot spot detection to avoid huge and widespread wildfires.

He also urged all stakeholders at both the national and regional level to work closely together in addressing the “preventable disaster”.

“I have ordered the BNPB to carry out cloud-seeding operations to make artificial rain in the affected areas. We will do this on a large and sustainable scale,” Jokowi said.

BNPB spokesman Agus Wibowo said the agency had deployed seven aircraft for cloud seeding in Riau. More than 40 planes would conduct similar operations in six affected regions: Riau, Jambi, South Sumatra, West Kalimantan, Central Kalimantan and South Kalimantan.

Warsi Indonesian Conservation Community director Rudi Saf said the forest fires in Jambi mirrored the devastating 2015 forest fires.

He said helicopters for water bombings would not be sufficient to put out the fires. He suggested deploying an aeroplane for water bombing to speed up the fight against fires on some 18,000ha of land.

“If the [situation] remains as is, we can only hope for rain to help put out the fire,” he said.

Meanwhile, in Palembang, South Sumatra, hundreds of university students staged a rally in front of the governor’s office on Tuesday to protest the government’s sluggish action, which they blamed for the massive wildfires in the region.

South Sumatra Governor Herman Deru said law enforcement authorities had named 23 suspects who allegedly set fire to forests.

“If [a company is proven guilty of causing fires], we will revoke its permit,” he said.

THE JAKARTA POST/ANN