World

Fighting haze with planes and prayer

President Joko Widodo says Indonesia has 'made every effort' to battle fires

PEKANBARU, INDONESIA: Indonesia is battling forest fires causing toxic haze across South-east Asia with aircraft, artificial rain and even prayer, President Joko Widodo said during a visit to a hard-hit area yesterday.

Forest fires are raging on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra, sending a choking fug across the region - including towards neighbours Malaysia and Singapore.

During a visit to Riau province in central Sumatra yesterday, Mr Joko said nearly 6,000 troops had been sent to hot spots to help the 9,000 already there to put out fires, AFP reported.

"We have made every effort," he said.

The fires have razed more than 328,700ha nationwide. Mr Joko travelled to Riau province, where nearly 50,000ha have burned, to galvanise the authorities to get the cross-border haze under control,

He said at least 52 helicopters have dropped more than 263 million litres of water and 164 tons of salt for cloud seeding as part of firefighting efforts in six provinces that have declared states of emergency, AP reported.

"We have also prayed," he added, after a visit to Amrulloh Mosque in Pekanbaru.

Earlier on Monday, Mr Joko held a limited Cabinet meeting in Pekanbaru, one of the worst affected areas, to review steps to fight the fires, Bloomberg reported.

He ordered a crackdown against individuals and companies responsible for the forest fires.

The authorities on Monday said they had arrested nearly 200 people suspected of being involved in activities that led to the out-of-control fires.

Four corporations were also being investigated.

The Association of South-east Asian Nations meteorological agency said yesterday the number of hot spots had stabilised, but a thick haze continued to cloak the region.

HAZARDOUS

On Borneo island, which Indonesia shares with Malaysia and Brunei, pollution levels were "hazardous", according to Environment Ministry data.

Hundreds of schools across Sumatra and Kalimantan were shut.

In Malaysia, the met office and air force were working together to seed clouds with chemicals in the hope that rainfall would clear the haze.

But the Education Ministry indicated that more schools are expected to close as the Air Pollutant Index continued to rise, The Star reported.

In a statement issued at 4pm yesterday, the ministry said 636 schools in Sarawak, Selangor, Putrajaya and Negri Sembilan had been closed, affecting 445,249 schoolchildren.

About 12 private schools involving 7,432 students also shuttered their doors yesterday.

Air quality was at "unhealthy" or "very unhealthy" levels in many parts of peninsular Malaysia and Sarawak state on Borneo, officials said.

Singapore's National Environment Agency said the Pollutant Standards Index for the next 24 hours would range between the high end of moderate and the low end of unhealthy.

And depending on wind conditions, the index could enter the mid-section of the unhealthy range if denser haze from Sumatra blows in.

WORLD