INDONESIAN President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has ordered the National Disaster Management Agency to tackle the haze from forest fires in Riau immediately, as the province's governor declared a state of emergency and appealed for help from Jakarta on Wednesday.
Haze continued to blanket much of Riau and spread to North and West Sumatra, as a prolonged month-long dry spell that is also affecting Malaysia and Singapore showed little sign of abating.
Indonesian officials are expected to start cloud-seeding operations to induce rain, as well as water-bombing sorties to put out raging fires, in the coming days.
Meanwhile, water rationing is starting for three million residents in Malaysia's Selangor state today, with dams at critical levels and rain not expected till mid-March. Negeri Sembilan and Johor are expected to follow suit.
While experts say climate change, cooler-than-normal surface temperatures in the South China Sea and abnormal weather in other parts of the world could be behind the unusually long dry spell in this region, Riau governor Annas Maamun blamed human action for worsening the situation.
Mr Annas, who took office on Wednesday last week, asked policemen in the province to act firmly against individuals or companies caught open-burning.
Emergency status allows Riau to tap funds set aside for natural disasters. Mr Annas also stressed that the central government had to send in aircraft to induce rain.
"If it's just helicopters, we won't be able to cope," he said.
Disaster officials say only cloud-seeding using aircraft will extinguish severe peatland fires thoroughly, while water-bombing will eliminate only surface fires as the peat underneath continues to burn. But inducing rain may be difficult in the absence of clouds.
Low visibility and strong winds from the north-east also make it harder to carry out sorties, Bengkalis regency's disaster head M. Jalal told Antara news agency.
Visibility in much of the province remained low yesterday morning, a day after the pollutants standard index for the coastal city of Dumai - the epicentre of last June's severe haze - hit a hazardous level of 776. Yesterday, it crossed 500, Dumai's chief health official Marjoko said.
Schools were declared shut for the rest of the week and Riau's health department reported over 22,000 cases of patients with respiratory illnesses this month.
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