Indonesia govt gets serious as pollution crisis deepens

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Pekanbaru, Riau (The Jakarta Post/ANN) - Original title: Govt gets serious as pollution crisis deepens

As the smog blanketing Singapore reached a life-threatening level, the Indonesian authorities declared on Friday a state of emergency in Riau, the epicenter of the forest fires that have ignited Southeast Asia¿s nastiest air-pollution crisis.

National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) chairman Samsul Maarif said on Friday that President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono had instructed the agency to take over all measures to combat the raging fires.

"All efforts will be deployed to contain the disaster. This is a sign that the government is serious in ensuring the safety of its citizens and the sustainability of the economy," he said.

The agency will prioritise the worst affected areas covering Bengkalis and Rokan Hilir regencies, located along the shores of the busy Malacca Strait, and Dumai municipality.

BNPB emergency response director Tri Budiarto said the agency had set up a command center at the Roesmin Nurjadin airport in Riau¿s capital, Pekanbaru, for coordination. "We have deployed two helicopters for waterbombing. We¿re also preparing Cassa and Hercules aircraft from the Air Force for cloud seeding over the next 30 days," said Tri.

He also said the government had allocated around 200 billion rupiah (US$20 million) to handle the disaster.

Riau Deputy Governor Mambang Mit said the raging fires could no longer be contained by firefighters, and that the administration¿s only hope lay in waterbombing, cloud seeding and heavy downpours.

The fires are believed to have been caused by slash-and-burn methods applied not only by major companies with huge forest concessions but also by traditional farmers seeking the cheapest way to clear land for cultivation, according to Riau Forestry Agency secretary Tengku Syoin.

"In some cases, such as in Dumai, the fires were ignited by passing motorists who threw their cigarette butts onto the fire-prone peatlands during the dry season," he said.

Authorities have forecast the fires could last for weeks, or even months, as the annual forest fires, which usually occur between June and September, in Sumatra and Kalimantan, have yet to reach their peak.

In Singapore, Reuters reported that the number of residents wearing face masks rose markedly as the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) climbed to a new record of 401 at midday, a level which health authorities consider potentially life-threatening for the elderly.

Singapore¿s tourist destination, Resorts World Sentosa, said it had to close certain outdoor attractions due to the haze. "In view of the haze situation, Resorts World Sentosa¿s outdoor attractions, Adventure Cove Waterpark, the Crane Dance and Lake of Dreams, will be closed until further notice," the resort said in a statement.

The resort, a favorite among Indonesian tourists, added that it "had no current information on the losses suffered due to the shutdown".

In Malaysia, southern Johor state was the worst affected, with pollution readings remaining in the "hazardous" category, according to Reuters.

Despite the disaster, the impact on the resource-rich Riau and its 5 million residents remains limited as so far no more than 100 families have been evacuated, according to Deputy Governor Mambang.

Upstream oil and gas watchdog SKKMigas head Rudi Rubiandini said the fires had not severely disrupted the operation of US-based Chevron, which operates Indonesia¿s biggest oil field in Riau. "There has only been minor disruption in transportation."

Chevron¿s operation in Riau accounts for around 40 percent of Indonesia¿s oil output.

As the smog in Singapore is unlikely to abate anytime soon, businesses in Jakarta may to some extent benefit from the situation.

Handaka Santosa, an executive with the Indonesian Retailers¿ Association (Aprindo), said the smog might dissuade Indonesian tourists from going on holidays to Singapore.

"They may revise their holiday plans and decide to stay and spend their time here in Jakarta instead. They can visit the Jakarta Great Sale," he said. "The association is not thankful for the haze. But in some way retail businesses may be impacted positively."

Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said on Friday the government would not issue an apology to its Singaporean counterpart for the haze crisis but he insisted that the government would do everything it could to tackle the problem.

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