Jokowi orders canal network to be built immediately

President Joko Widodo wants large canals with dams built in fire-prone areas to ensure peatlands are not drained during the dry season, becoming tinder for forest fires.

He made the decision after visiting Central Kalimantan on Thursday to inspect the damage from raging fires that eventually led to the current haze crisis.

The province was the worst hit by illegal forest fires this week, which sent the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) in the area to "hazardous" levels.

Peatlands, which are usually waterlogged and formed over thousands of years, consist mainly of decomposed vegetation, making them carbon-rich and highly flammable during dry seasons.

During his visit to Pulang Pisau regency in Central Kalimantan this week, Mr Joko had personally witnessed how fast fires developed and spread over peatlands starved of moisture.

Hethen directed the National Disaster Management Agency (BNPB) to take action "immediately and build the canals on a large scale", adding that financing for the project would come from Jakarta since the local government did not have the funds to pay for it.

Mr Joko had planned to travel to North Sumatra to visit evacuees affected by the recent eruptions of Mount Sinabung, and to inspect firefighting efforts in other parts of Sumatra.

But the worsening conditions in Central Kalimantan prompted the President to cancel the trip and extend his stay in the province.

Green activists yesterday hailed Mr Joko's decision to create a more robust irrigation system, adding that canals when properly laid out - linking them to an upstream river - could keep peatlands humid and prevent hot spots from spreading.

Building a network of canals, however, could be a counter-productive endeavour if no sluice gates are installed to prevent water from running off, warned Mr Mukri Priatna of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi).

"This will prevent fire from spreading," he said. "The area with a high supply of water should be linked to the lower supply areas using canals."

Mr Mukri pointed out an area called Sei Tohor in Riau province's Meranti islands, where Walhi had helped to plan a canal network on the lands of local farmers.

"The fact is that Sei Tohor isn't burning this year," he added, referring to the canals built in September last year.

"The success in Sei Tohor can hence be emulated elsewhere." As with previous years, the haze crisis has affected millions living in Indonesia, as well as neighbouring Singapore and Malaysia.

The blanketing smoke is set to remain until November, due in part to the dry spell caused by the El Nino effect, said to be among the strongest since records were kept in 1950.

The BNPB had said that it will need not only more boots on the ground to fight the fires, but also more money to deal with the crisis.

Some 4,800 troops have been deployed to fight fires in both Sumatra and Kalimantan.

Singapore has offered its assistance to resolve the crisis but Indonesia has yet to accept the help.

The Star reported yesterday that a meeting between Malaysia and Indonesia over the haze crisis has been put off for the third time.

Malaysia's Natural Resources and Environment Minister Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar and Indonesia's Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar were scheduled to meet in Jakarta on Thursday to discuss the contents and terms of a memorandum of understanding to combat the transboundary haze.

A new date for the meeting had yet to be set, said the Malaysian authority. "The haze is getting worse and a state of emergency has been declared in a number of places in Indonesia."

This article was first published on Sep 26, 2015.
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