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Jakarta employs new tactics to fight forest fires this dry season

JAKARTA — Indonesia’s top security minister said yesterday that authorities have started efforts to fight forest and peatland fires that often pollute South-east Asia’s air as the dry season begins this month.

Jakarta employs new tactics to fight forest fires this dry season

The smoky haze that covered a swathe of Indonesia last year was estimated to have caused respiratory problems for half a million people. Photo: Reuters

JAKARTA — Indonesia’s top security minister said yesterday that authorities have started efforts to fight forest and peatland fires that often pollute South-east Asia’s air as the dry season begins this month.

Mr Luhut Pandjaitan, the Coordinating Minister for Politics, Legal and Security Affairs, said the government wants to avoid mistakes made last year when lack of prevention resulted in fires burning out of control. President Joko Widodo had to ask for help from other countries to bring the blazes under control.

Forest fires have been an annual problem in Indonesia since the mid-1990s, causing a toxic haze that often drifts into neighbouring countries such as Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. Last year’s fires, which covered 2.1 million ha, were considered one of the country’s worst environmental disasters since 1997, when blazes spread across nearly 10 million ha.

Most of the fires are started deliberately to clear land for agriculture such as palm oil plantations.

“We will declare a state of emergency once fires are detected, particularly on peat land,” said Mr Pandjaitan. “We don’t want to repeat mistakes we made last year.”

Early declaration of emergencies will speed up the release of funds so authorities can deploy troops, helicopters and firefighting equipment more quickly, he said. Damming canals so they flood peatland, which burns easily, is also being tried nationwide.

Scientists have predicted that low rainfall due to the El Nino effect could make fires worse this year if the government fails to stop intentional burning, particularly in Sumatra and Kalimantan on the Indonesian part of Borneo island.

The fires have caused health problems and economic losses, on top of environmental damage. Last year in Indonesia, there were 21 deaths and the smoky haze was estimated to have caused respiratory problems for half a million people.

The World Bank has estimated US$16 billion (S$22 billion) in economic costs from the 2015 fires, more than double what was spent on rebuilding Aceh province after the 2004 tsunami.

The Riau provincial government declared a state of emergency on Monday after fires in at least three districts began spreading rapidly because of strong winds. More than 700 police and soldiers have been deployed to extinguish the fires.

Riau province was one of the most severely affected areas last year.

Mr Anderson Tanoto, a director at Royal Golden Eagle, a diversified conglomerate that controls Asia Pacific Resources International (APRIL), a producer of fibre, pulp and paper, said that the declaration of a state of emergency “was positive”, as it will help Riau, the province in which APRIL has its main operations, to secure all the investment and manpower it needs to help prevent and fight fires.

“That means that all command posts will start working. The faster they start working, the faster the flame can be extinguished,” said Mr Anderson. “Last year, the alert was sent so late.”

Ms Aida Greenbury, managing director of sustainability at Asia Pulp and Paper (APP), a subsidiary of the Sinar Mas Group, said APP has made commitments for this year to spend more than US$20 million for its broad fire management strategy, which lists measures such as prevention, preparation, early detection and rapid responses. AGENCIES

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