Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is heading to Riau today to personally lead efforts to contain raging forest and plantation fires that have shrouded the province in haze that has reached hazardous levels.
The President made the decision to do so last Friday at a teleconference call where he also decided to deploy more troops to help fight the fires and step up water-bombing operations.
His decision came as the airport in provincial capital Pekanbaru remained closed for a second day running last Friday and visibility dipped below 50m in many parts of the province.
Hundreds of students took to the streets in Pekanbaru to call on the President to take charge of the problem.
Officials said last Friday that air quality reached its lowest recorded levels since the haze problem this year began last month.
Dr Yudhoyono called the situation on Sumatra island a "man-made disaster" and urged all village heads to educate farmers to stop the practice of burning to clear land.
"The fire was not caused by the climate. It is deliberate burning. This will recur every year if people still burn," he said.
The President also did not mince his words as he scolded Coordinating Welfare Minister Agung Laksono and Provincial Governor Annas Maamun for skipping the teleconference call that also involved Vice-President Boediono, Riau's deputy governor, the Attorney-General and several ministers.
Up to 1,260 army and air force troops will join the 2,500-strong personnel already fighting the fire from the ground, while water bombing will intensify.
These beefed-up operations will last for the next three weeks.
The stepping up of efforts has come not a moment too soon.
The number of respiratory illness cases has surged close to 50,000, and several residents, especially women and children, have started leaving the province, many heading for nearby North Sumatra.
The Arifin Achmad state hospital in Pekanbaru has appealed to the municipal administration to evacuate pregnant women, babies and toddlers from the capital until conditions return to normal.
This is the first time the hospital has made such an appeal.
"This is too dangerous. The short-term impact on babies, toddlers and pregnant women could be severe coughing and bronchitis, while the long-term impact, in 10 years' time, could be lung cancer for those prone to cancer," said Dr Ajisman Syafaat, a lung specialist at the hospital.
"Last year, it wasn't as bad; the haze lasted for a straight week at the worst point then.
"This time round, it has lasted for a month already and is still ongoing," the doctor told The Straits Times.
Mr Zainal Arifin, head of Riau's health department, has appealed to cities and regencies affected by haze to declare holidays for civil servants and private employees in their respective jurisdictions, after Pekanbaru extended school closures due to the lingering haze.
"The air in Riau is at a level that is not breathable by humans," said Mr Zainal.
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