Severity of haze 'due to 5-year cycle' of dry weather

Pekanbaru's hazy skies on Monday (above) cleared up a bit on Tuesday after rain fell for 15 minutes. The heat in the provincial capital has also been stifling, hitting 37 deg C on Monday.

RIAU - Travelling from one hot spot to another this past week, we kept hearing the same message from Indonesian officials and experts alike: This is the worst haze ever.

It certainly feels that way. The mercury has been rising steadily as more hot spots have been reported.

On Monday, the temperature in Pekanbaru, Riau's provincial capital, hit a record 37 deg C, the highest in 42 years.

There are currently more than 435 hot spots in Sumatra, 265 of which are in Riau.

So why is the haze this year worse than in previous years?

It has to do with the "five-year cycle", according to Forestry Minister Zulkifli Hasan.

"Every five years, the weather becomes extremely dry. The wind is also much stronger and moves in a circular motion. So, when there is burning, fire spreads very quickly," he explained.

"Due to the dry season, it takes time for firefighters to locate the water sources. By the time water is irrigated to the hot spots, the fire would have spread," he added. "The fire spreads much faster than the firefighters can put it out."

Emergency declared in Malaysia as API surpasses 750
Click on thumbnail to view (Photos: AFP, Reuters )
Smoke from hotspots blanket Riau province
Click on thumbnail to view (Photos: Hang Nadim Meteorological Station, ST, Reuters, AFP, Sarawak Conservation Alliance for Natural Environment)

Mr Jaafar Arit, head of Bengkalis' disaster management agency, has a similar assessment, noting that strong and swirling winds have helped to spread the fires.

"The winds are so strong that the burning leaves could be blown up to 500m away, land on another plot of land and spread the fire," he said.

The Straits Times team has visited four hot spots in Dumai city and in the regencies of Bengkalis and Rokan Hilir. A quarter of the hot spots reported in Riau were detected in Rokan Hilir district.

Even though rain has been reported in Dumai and Bengkalis district since cloud-seeding operations began last Saturday, Pekanbaru-based meteorologist Ardhitama does not think the minor downpours, which lasted for just 30 minutes, would have much effect on the burning peatlands.

"Only natural rain that lasts two to three hours across the entire Riau province can clear the haze," he said.

"But there are no cumulus clouds at this time of the year. Hence, cloud-seeding and water-bombing operations would not be fruitful."

Mr Ardhitama thinks the only "solution" is to wait it out until the dry season ends in August.

But not everyone is prepared to be so patient.

The Indonesian Forum for the Environment, one of the country's leading environmental groups, issued a letter on Tuesday threatening legal action against President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono for neglect over the haze.

It also threatened to take similar action against three ministries, three governors and the national police chief.

"These (haze-causing fires) have not just happened now, but repeatedly over the past 15 years. Yet, the response has been slow," Mr Muhnur Satyahaprabu, the group's manager for advocacy policy and legal defence, told The Straits Times.

But hours after Dr Yudhoyono publicly apologised for the haze blanketing Singapore and Malaysia, Jakarta showed fresh signs of urgency in tackling the problem.

At Halim airbase in Jakarta on Tuesday, the Indonesian leader sent off another 1,400 disaster response officials, soldiers, policemen and civil servants to the affected areas in Riau.

Another 1,600 would head there on Wednesday, said National Disaster Management Agency chief Syamsul Maarif. This will bring the total number of personnel on the ground to more than 5,300.

Dr Syamsul was also seeking assistance from the Foreign Ministry to deploy additional aircraft for water-bombing operations. These aircraft could be rented from Russia, Canada, Australia or South Korea.

"We are looking, and will rent them as fast as we can," he said.

Additional reporting by Zakir Hussain in Jakarta

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