Haze crisis spreads with hot spots found in Papua

Apriadi Gunawan and Nethy Darma Somba, The Jakarta Post, October 18th 2015

The intensity of smoke produced by peatland and forest fires has remained at alarming levels in many parts of the country, reaching as far as Papua, which usually does not suffer from forest fires.

In Deli Serdang regency, North Sumatra, the operator of Kualanamu International Airport reported that thick haze in several regions in Sumatra had affected at least eight flights scheduled to depart on Saturday from the province's biggest airport.

"Four flights have been canceled and four others have been delayed due to thick haze that has been blanketing the destination cities," Kualanamu duty manager Jasirin said on Saturday.

Visibility at the airport, meanwhile, was recorded at 1,000 meters on Saturday, 500 meters below the normal level.

The four canceled flights, according to Jasirin, were operated by Garuda Indonesia, Citilink, Lion Air and Wings Air. The Garuda flight was initially scheduled to leave Kualanamu for Lhokseumawe, Aceh, while the one operated by Wings was supposed to fly to Sibolga, North Sumatra. The two flights operated by Citilink and Lion Air were scheduled to fly to Batam, Riau Islands.

Due to the disruptions, Kualanamu's departure hall was packed with stranded airline passengers by Saturday afternoon.

Many regions in Indonesia, including Riau, Jambi, North Sumatra, South Sumatra and Central Kalimantan, have been struggling for the past several months to anticipate the impacts of smoke produced by both man-made and natural land and forest fires.

On Friday, the Health Ministry reported that the haze crisis had caused more than 425,000 people in the worst-affected provinces to suffer from acute respiratory infections. The disaster, meanwhile, has also been exacerbated by this year's long dry season triggered by the El Niño weather phenomenon, and has recently spread eastward.

In Papua, local authorities have since Thursday closed Mozes Kilangin International Airport in Timika, Mimika regency, due to thick haze that has severely reduced visibility in the area.

"The visibility has dropped from 500 meters on Friday to only 400 meters today [Saturday]," Mimika Transportation, Communications and Information Agency head John Rettob said, adding that he suspected the haze came from land and forest fires in the southern part of Papua.

Earlier on Friday, the Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency's (BMKG) Region V Jayapura office reported that it had detected 104 hot spots in southern areas, with 92 spotted in Merauke regency and the remaining 12 in Mappi regency.

Local residents have also expressed disappointment on the worsening air pollution.

"Timika has become dark due to the haze, even though we have been switching on lights in the afternoon," said Saldi, a local resident.

In South Sulawesi, the Maros Disaster Mitigation Agency (BPBD) on Saturday reported that it had deployed personnel to extinguish fires that had been spotted in some parts of Bantimurung-Bulusaraung National Park in Cenrana district.

Maros BPBD head Sayuti said the fires had initially come from a neighboring educational forest, which belongs to Hasanuddin University (Unhas) and has been recently burned by fires.

"Although we managed to put out fires in the Unhas forest, they spread to some parts of the nearby conservation forest since yesterday [Friday]," Sayuti said.

A recent study, meanwhile, has revealed the catastrophic impact of forest fires in Indonesia, catapulting the country's CO2 emissions over Germany's total annual emissions.

The study, done by VU University Amsterdam, showed that land and forest fires in Indonesia this year had released an estimated one billion metric tons, or a gigaton, of carbon dioxide as of Wednesday.

"Fire emissions are already higher than Germany's total CO2 emissions, and the fire season is not over yet," said Guido van der Werf, a researcher at the university who keeps a database that tracks global emissions from wildfires.

Furthermore, since September, daily emissions from Indonesia's fires exceeded daily emissions from the entire US economy, which is 20 times larger than Indonesia's, on 26 days, according to the World Resources Institute (WRI).

— Hans Nicholas Jong in Jakarta and Andi Hajramurni in Makassar contributed
to this article.