Indonesia fights fires as haze cloaks Southeast Asia before F1
Indonesia Tuesday deployed an extra 1,600 military personnel to fight forest and farm fires that have cast a thick haze over the region, closing schools in Malaysia and shrouding Singapore in smog just as it prepares to host the glitzy Formula One race.
President Joko Widodo ordered the military ramp-up on Sumatra after authorities declared a state of emergency in the island’s hard-hit Riau province Monday.
The personnel were dispatched to Riau and South Sumatra provinces to help local authorities fight fires, joining over 1,000 soldiers sent to the area last week, Indonesia’s disaster agency said.
Smog-belching blazes, an annual problem in Southeast Asia during the dry season, have intensified in Sumatra and the Indonesian part of Borneo island in the past two weeks, sending a cloud of acrid haze across the region.
The illegal fires are started, often by local farmers and landowners, to clear vast tracts of land to make way for palm oil and pulp and paper plantations, and Indonesia has failed to halt the practice despite years of pressure from its neighbors.
Fears are mounting that the smog shrouding the skyline in regional financial hub Singapore, where air quality remained at unhealthy levels Tuesday, could affect this weekend’s Grand Prix.
Organizers of Formula One’s only night race, which sees cars race along a brightly illuminated track alongside landmarks and is coupled with pop concerts, have said they are closely monitoring the haze.
A heavy downpour brought some relief to the affluent city-state Tuesday, but a strong smell of burning wood and foliage remained in the air.
‘Firm legal action’
After announcing late Monday that more troops would be sent to Sumatra, Widodo said he had ordered law enforcement agencies to take action against “parties responsible for the forest fires.”
“I want to stress that very firm legal action will be taken,” said the president, who is currently on a trip to the Middle East.
Around 100 people and 15 companies are being investigated over the blazes, according to the disaster agency.
Tens of thousands of people in smoke-choked regions of Sumatra and Borneo have fallen ill, while air travel there — as well as in parts of Malaysia — has been hit by sporadic flight delays or cancellations due to poor visibility.
Malaysia’s education ministry ordered schools closed in Kuala Lumpur, three adjacent states and the nearby administrative capital of Putrajaya, as the capital was enveloped in a smoky grey shroud.
Air pollution indices in the affected areas were in the upper range of “unhealthy” and nearing “very unhealthy.” More than half of the country’s 52 monitoring stations registered “unhealthy” air on Tuesday.
Malaysian authorities in several areas have distributed free face masks, while people with respiratory conditions were advised to cover their faces outdoors and all citizens were urged to limit unnecessary outdoor activity.
Malaysian Environment Minister Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar told AFP he was “concerned because it affects the health of our people” and said he planned to meet his Indonesian counterpart, Siti Nurbaya Bakar, later this month to discuss the issue.
Pressure to stop the annual outbreaks of smog has increased since 2013 when Southeast Asia suffered its worst air pollution crisis for more than a decade, but attempts to find a regional solution have moved slowly.
Singapore said Monday Bakar had agreed to share the names of companies suspected of causing the fires. Indonesia has previously faced criticism for failing to hand over such information, which could be used to prosecute law-breakers.
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