Jakarta pledged Friday to deploy more personnel and aircraft to battle forest fires that have spread haze across the region in recent days, while Indonesian and Malaysian officials have traded blame for the air pollution.
A diplomatic row between the neighboring countries erupted this week after officials in Indonesia denied that haze in Malaysia came from forest fires burning through peatland on Sumatra and Borneo islands.
The smog from the blazes has forced schools across the region to close and residents to flee their homes
“The haze has crossed to neighboring countries, obviously troubling people who are affected, and at times disrupting flights,” Indonesian security minister Wiranto said after meeting with other officials to discuss the fires.
“We need to send additional firefighting personnel and equipment to extinguish the fires,” he said. “We are also preparing rapid reaction firefighting forces in critical locations with aircraft ready to seed clouds to induce rain.”
Wiranto said the forestry ministry had deployed almost 2,000 firefighters, but did not say how many additional personnel would be sent. He said the military was also preparing to send more aircraft to affected areas, but he gave no details.
The National Disaster Management Agency said more than 9,000 people were involved in efforts to extinguish the fires.
The number of hot spots from fires on Sumatra and the Indonesian part of Borneo had dropped to 974 on Thursday, from 1,619 the previous day, according to online data from the ASEAN Specialized Meteorological Center (ASMC).
Wiranto laid most of the blame for the fires on small farmers.
Police said this week that at least 175 people, most of them farmers who use slash-and-burn methods of clearing land, were arrested on suspicion of links to forest fires.
In Pekanbaru, the capital of Riau province on Sumatra, civil servants prayed for rain at the mayor’s office on Friday as haze had reduced visibility to as low as 200 meters (984 feet) in parts of the region.
“We ask to God for rain because we need water urgently to extinguish the fires in Riau which have reached dangerous levels,” said Pekanbaru mayor Firdaus, who uses only one name, according to the state-run Antara news agency.
Some Riau residents have fled to Padang, the capital of West Sumatra province, about 362 km (226 miles) southwest, where haze was less intense.
“I have brought my family here to get fresh air,” Pekanbaru resident Ivo Rambe told BenarNews in Padang on Friday.
“Pekanbaru is no longer safe. Schools are closed and children are not allowed to go outside. This is a sad situation,” she said.
Another Pekanbaru resident, Purwanto, said he did not know when he would return to his city.
“Where I live, the haze is so thick it’s hard to breathe,” he said.
The West Sumatra government issued a circular calling on officials to distribute masks to residents.
“Air quality is deteriorating. People need to be given face masks so they are not exposed to pollutants,” West Sumatra Deputy Gov. Nasrul Abit told BenarNews.
Haze has also blanketed parts of Malaysia and forced the closure of more than 400 schools in the state of Sarawak on Borneo this week.
Officials said 500,000 facemasks had been delivered to Sarawak, where the Air Pollutant Index (API) reached an unhealthy level of 201 on Tuesday morning. The API considers a level of 50 or below healthy.
On Wednesday, Indonesia’s National Disaster Management Agency said fires had destroyed more than 328,000 hectares of plantation and forest nationwide this year, mainly in six provinces on Sumatra and Borneo.
Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar told Reuters news agency on Friday that some forest fires in Indonesian territory had started on plantations belonging to four local subsidiaries of Malaysian palm oil companies.
She said the plantations had been sealed off in connection with forest fires in West Kalimantan and Riau provinces.
On Tuesday, Siti said that haze in Malaysia came from forest fires there, and accused Kuala Lumpur of not being transparent about its own forest fires.
Yeo Bee Yin, Malaysia’s environment minister, responded by citing satellite data, which showed there were 474 hotspots in Indonesia’s Kalimantan and 387 in Sumatra on Tuesday, while there were only seven in Malaysia.
“Let the data speak for itself,” she wrote on Facebook on Wednesday. “Minister Siti Nurbaya should not be in denial.”
Yeo said Thursday that Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad would write a letter to Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo about the matter.
Siti did not say if Jokowi had received a letter.
On Thursday, Malaysian Ambassador to Indonesia Zainal Abidin Bakar said Kuala Lumpur was not pointing fingers at Jakarta over the current haze problems, instead the country was offering some forms of assistance in tackling the forest fires.
Zainal Abidin said an official letter from the Malaysian government through Yeo had been made available to the Indonesian government, according to Malaysian news agency Bernama.
“It is not a protest letter, but (the letter) is of Malaysia’s intention to help dealing with haze (to fight fire at forest and agricultural areas in Indonesia),” he told reporters.
In Malaysia on Friday, pollution in 30 areas had reached unhealthy levels as of 5 p.m., authorities said.
At least 29 schools in Selangor state were closed due to haze on Thursday, affecting 45,265 students, according to Malaysian education officials.
Experts said forest and peat fires could result in a significant increase in carbon dioxide emissions.
“Carbon dioxide emissions cause the greenhouse effect, which in turn causes global warming,” said Daniel Mudiyarso, a climate scientist at the Bogor-based Center for International Forestry Research.
Daniel said the current bout of fires had not reached the level of 2015, when 11.3 million tons of carbon were emitted per day for two months, more than the 8.9 million tons emitted by 28 European countries combined.
The 2015 fires killed at least 24 people, according to the Indonesian government. The World Bank estimated economic losses as a result of the fires at $16 billion (226 trillion rupiah).
The slash-and-burn practices of forests, considered to be the cheapest and easiest way to clear land for farming, have been blamed for the fires.
Ahmad Syamsudin in Jakarta and Sulthan Azzam in Padang, Indonesia, contributed to this report.