Thick haze puts health, air travel at risk: Indonesia

The intensity of pollution produced by land and forest fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan continued to fluctuate over the weekend, putting the health of local residents at risk and disrupting activities in a number of airports on the two major islands.

On Sunday, as of 10 a.m. local time, the management of Sultan Syarif Kasim International (SSK) II Airport in Pekanbaru reported that there was no flight activity taking place at the airport, as the haze that blanketed the Riau provincial capital decreased visibility to only 300 metres.

SSK II officer-in-charge Hasnan Siregar said although the visibility had increased to around 1,000 metres by 9:30 a.m., most airlines had decided to cancel their morning flights to Pekanbaru over safety concerns.

"In fact, there should have been six flight arrivals from Jakarta and Bandung during that time," Hasnan said.

Local authorities in many parts of the country, particularly in Sumatra and Kalimantan, have been struggling over the past few months to extinguish massive land and forest fires triggered mainly by this year's extended dry season.

In Riau, the country's largest oil-producing region, at least 12 regencies and municipalities have been blanketed by different intensities of pollution over the past weeks, resulting in an increase in the number of people suffering from respiratory illnesses.

Provisional data from the Riau Health Agency, for example, showed that 9,386 people had suffered from haze-related diseases over the past few months. Of that number, 7,412 suffered from acute respiratory infection (ISPA), 903 from skin irritation, 485 from eye irritation, 296 from asthma and 290 from pneumonia.

"During the past week alone, there were 2,601 new patients," agency head Andra Sjafril said on Sunday.

In South Kalimantan, Antara news agency reported that 13 flights from and to Banjarmasin's Syamsudin Noor Airport experienced delays for several hours on Sunday because of the thick haze that covered the city.

A Lion Air flight heading to Surabaya, which was initially scheduled to take off at 6:30 a.m. local time, for example, could only depart at 8:04 a.m., while another serving the Banjarmasin-Yogyakarta route finally left at 8 a.m. after it had been delayed for almost two hours.

"The visibility started to return to normal from 11 a.m. and by noon the visibility increased to 8,000 metres, allowing all subsequent flights to go smoothly," the airport's service section head Wahyu Riyanto said.

The government has recently announced the establishment of a task force that will conduct a "haze emergency" operation at the national level to support soon-to-be-established task forces on regional levels, with the respective governors acting as coordinators.

Meanwhile, in support of ongoing efforts to curb the worsening haze, a number of comic strip drawers accross the archipelago are organising a campaign against the pollution by posting their works, including animation, cartoons, photos, memes and poems under the theme of "protest against haze", on social media.

Pekanbaru-based Dhany Pramata, an initiator of the move, for example, recently created a campaign with the hashtag #MasihMelawanAsap (still fighting against haze) through his Instagram account, which has 55,300 followers.

"As a Riau resident, I will never tire of voicing my protests until the sky over Riau returns to blue," he told The Jakarta Post.