Only rain can help S'pore now

JAKARTA/PEKANBARU, Indonesia - As haze from forest fires in Sumatra wreaked havoc on the prosperous city-state of Singapore, Indonesian government has suggested an imminent downpour as the only way to bring an end to the crisis.

Forestry Ministry general secretary Hadi Daryanto said on Thursday that Indonesia could not guarantee that necessary measures taken to combat the fires would be effective without a miracle in the form of a heavy downpour.

Hadi quoted a forecast from the Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG), which predicted a downpour on June 28.

Should the rain occur, Hadi said, it would mark the end of a 10-day cyclone that had caused the wind to blow to Singapore and Malaysia. The rain would also end the weather anomalies that had made it difficult for the authorities to battle the fires, mostly centred in Riau province.

"We have considered creating artificial rain to put out the fires, but that would take two weeks. So we've decided to leave it in the hands of nature. And let's just pray for that," said Hadi.

"If there is no downpour then the haze could last for weeks, or even months, as we try to generate artificial rain," said Hadi.

The ministry, which is responsible for preventing and combating forest fires across the archipelago, has used water bombing and deployed its special force of firefighters to extinguish fires in Riau.

Despite the difficulties, Hadi said the ministry did not see any immediate need for assistance from other countries, saying that Indonesia had "adequate funds and equipment to counter the flames".

Air quality in Singapore, Southeast Asia's financial centre, had deteriorated to a record "hazardous level" by Thursday, worse than the pollution levels recorded in the 1997 haze crisis.

Investment bank Barclays Plc. said in a note that Singapore would suffer an immediate hit to tourism as retailers, hotels, restaurants, gaming and other tourism-related sectors made up as much as 6 per cent of the country's economy.

"We think arrivals will recover quickly when the haze dissipates," it said in the report. "But the situation is fluid - prolonged hazardous conditions could affect Singapore's international reputation."

The illegal burning of forest to clear land for palm oil plantations and peatland blazes triggered by the dry season in Sumatra and Kalimantan have become an annual problem for neighbouring Singapore and Malaysia.

Environment Minister Balthasar Kambuaya said he had identified five companies behind the forest fires, but refused to name them.

Riau Andalan Pulp and Paper, which is operating in the impacted areas, said it had teamed up with nearby residents to put out the flames.

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