Thick smoke rises as a fire burns in a forest at Ogan Komering Ilir Regency, South Sumatra

PHOTO: The haze is a result of Indonesian farmers burning forests to make way for palm oil plantations. (Reuters: Nova Wahyudi)

OCT. 8, 2015  

SINGAPORE — Savir Singh’s taxi rolled into downtown Singapore, taking an overpass that provides a stunning view of the popular hotels and tourist attractions around Marina Bay.

The only problem was that he could barely see them. Thick haze from forest fires set in neighboring Indonesia to clear land for agriculture has blanketed this island state for weeks, and has spread to Malaysia and southern Thailand.

While many Singaporeans have sought refuge from the pollution in their homes, offices or shopping malls, Mr. Singh’s only haven is his mobile workplace, and a small bottle of eyedrops lying near his armrest.

“Look at this,” he said, pointing to the partly obscured Singapore Flyer, a 540-foot-tall Ferris wheel. “I wish they had haze in Jakarta. Then the government there would do something about it.”

Mr. Singh’s anger is part and parcel of a near-annual ritual: Fires set in Sumatra and the Indonesian side of Borneo blanket parts of Southeast Asia with smoke for weeks. While this has been going on for decades, an especially long dry season this year coupled with the effects of El Niño, threaten to make it the worst on record, scientists say.

A fire being extinguished on peatland and fields in the province of South Sumatra in Indonesia. CreditUlet Ifansasti/Getty Images

Around the region, flights have been grounded, schools have been closed, and tens of thousands of people have sought medical treatment for respiratory problems, allergies, eczema and other ailments. The first night of an international sports competition, the FINA Swimming World Cup, set for last Saturday and hosted by Singapore, was canceled because of health concerns — as was a marathon in Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysia capital, set to be run the next morning.

This year, there have been more vocal complaints from people affected in Singapore, Malaysia and even in Indonesia. There has also been high-profile sniping among government leaders, along with lawsuits, investigations and arrests of accused fire-starters — a familiar replay from 2013, when the region suffered its last major bout of haze.

After the skies cleared in 2013, the issue was once again forgotten — until last month, when the crisis erupted anew.

The consensus this year is the same as it was then: The slash-and-burn techniques used in Indonesia’s palm oil industry are continuing unabated, and there is no magic bullet for ending the practice — or the haze it causes — in the short term.

Finding the long-term solution requires reducing agriculture in Indonesia’s carbon-rich peatland, curtailing slash-and-burn methods for clearing land and halting the conversions of forests to agricultural uses including palm oil, said Peter Holmgren, director general of the Center for International Forestry Research, a global scientific organization with its headquarters in Bogor, Indonesia.

“Fire is the most cost-effective way of clearing, which is why it is done,” he said.
Finding a permanent solution is daunting enough, but more than a month into the crisis, it seems that the region cannot curb the haze in the short term. Indonesia says that its military personnel are battling more than 1,000 forest-fire clusters, while Greenpeace says that figure does not include fires that started aboveground on peatland and are now burning out of control.

Up until Wednesday, Indonesia had rebuffed offers by neighbors to help it battle the blazes and had even admonished Singaporean and Malaysian leaders for daring to complain about the haze.

On Thursday, President Joko Widodo of Indonesia said his government had requested “help and assistance” the day before from Singapore and Malaysia, as well as Russia and Japan, in getting the peatland fires under control, according to a statement released by his cabinet secretariat.

Cable cars heading to and from the Sentosa resort in Singapore last month. Thick haze from man-made forest fires in neighboring Indonesia has blanketed the island state. CreditEdgar Su/Reuters

Mr. Joko said his government had specifically requested firefighting aircraft with a water-carrying capacity of 12 to 15 tons, saying that Indonesian planes currently fighting the blazes have carrying capacities of between two and three tons.

The aid request seemed to reflect a new seriousness from the Indonesian government.

Late last month, the country’s outspoken vice president, Jusuf Kalla, repeated a statement he made earlier in the year in which he said that neighboring countries “should be grateful” to Indonesia for the clean air they have the other 11 months of the year.

During the 2013 haze crisis, Agung Laksono, a senior Indonesian cabinet minister at the time, compared Singaporean leaders to a child having a temper tantrum after they complained about the impact that thick haze was having on tourism, which is a major contributor to Singapore’s economy.

“It’s like a blame game,” said Bustar Maitar, global leader of the Indonesia Forest Campaign at Greenpeace.

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Thick haze from Indonesia's forest fires blankets the city of Davao, southern Philippines

PHOTO: Smog from forest fires burning in Indonesia has begun wafting over to the southern Philippine island of Mindanao.(AFP: Dennis Jay Santo)

Haze from Indonesian forest fires has spread to the Philippines, disrupting air traffic and prompting warnings for residents to wear face masks, authorities say.

The southern Philippine island of Mindanao is more than 1,200 kilometres from the nearest fires but the haze has become a worsening problem across the island over the past week, aviation authorities said.

It spread to the country’s central islands of Cebu and Negros on Friday, disrupting air traffic, Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines spokesman Eric Apolonio said.

Eight domestic flights have been cancelled and dozens delayed since the problem began on October 16, affecting thousands of passengers, he added.

On some occasions, pilots could not see the airstrip as they were coming in to land.