Indonesia ‘doing everything’ to put out forest fires: Widodo

PEKANBARU: Indonesia is battling forest fires causing toxic haze across southeast Asia with aircraft, artificial rain and even prayer, President Joko Widodo said during a visit to a hard-hit area on Tuesday.
Forest fires are raging on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra, sending a choking fug across the region — including towards neighbours Malaysia and Singapore.
During a visit to Riau province in central Sumatra on Tuesday, Widodo said nearly 6,000 troops had been sent to hot spots to help put out fires.
“We have made every effort,” he said.
As well as firefighters on the ground, dozens of aircraft were being used to seed clouds and bomb blazes with water, he said.
“We have also prayed,” he added, after a visit to Amrulloh Mosque in Pekanbaru.
The toxic smoke caused by deliberate burning to clear land for plantations is an annual problem for Indonesia and its neighbours, but has been worsened this year by particularly dry weather.
Authorities on Monday said they had arrested nearly 200 people suspected of being involved in activities that led to the out-of-control fires.
Four corporations were also being investigated, authorities said.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meteorological agency said on Tuesday the number of hotspots had stabilised, but a thick haze continued to cloak the region.
On Borneo island, which Indonesia shares with Malaysia and Brunei, pollution levels were “hazardous”, according to environment ministry data. Hundreds of schools across Indonesia were shut.
In peninsular Malaysia, the met office and air force were working together to seed clouds with chemicals in the hope that rainfall would clear the haze.
Thick haze sent pollution in Malaysia’s Sarawak to critical levels on Tuesday, according to the country’s Air Pollution Index (API). API readings from the state in north-west Borneo hit levels of 311 in the city of Sri Aman at 3 am (1900 GMT), and steadily climbed to reach a peak of 367 by 9 am.
Readings above 300 are considered hazardous to human health, as they can cause breathing difficulties, trigger asthma and exacerbate the development of conditions like bronchitis.
Good to moderate air quality readings are between 0 to 100, and readings between 101 to 300 can vary between unhealthy to very unhealthy.
Hundreds of schools were closed on Tuesday, affecting more than 350,000 students.
Meanwhile, air quality improved in Singapore and was in the “moderate” range after slipping to “unhealthy” levels over the weekend, officials there said. — AFP/dpa