Rain brings some respite from Indonesian haze, but fires still rage


Rain brought some respite on Wednesday in Indonesian provinces affected by choking smog from forest fires, but failed to extinguish the blazes, an official said.

Pollution levels improved from “unhealthy” to “moderate” in Riau province on Sumatra island and visibility increased to as far as 2,000 metres, said National Disaster Management Agency spokesman Sutopo Nugroho.

“[Tuesday’s]rain improved air quality but in some areas pollution levels remain at unhealthy levels,” he said.

He said the presence of clouds also meant that rain could be induced artificially using chemicals dropped from aircraft.

Sutopo said satellite images showed 10 hotspots indicating fires on Sumatra and 130 on Borneo island despite the rain.

More than 500,000 people have been made sick by the haze since forest fires broke out about three months ago, according to the disaster management agency.

Animals too are suffering.

Many of more than 500 orangutans at a rehabilitation Palangka Raya in Central Kalimantan province have shown signs of respiratory problems, said Nico Hermanu, a spokesman for the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation.

At least 16 of them required special treatment for lung infections, being given drugs, extra vitamins and oxygen, he said.

“We initially considered moving the orangutans to another location, but there is no suitable location,” Nico said.

“An evacuation is unlikely so we hope that rain will continue and make things better for all of us,” he said.

Sending the animals to the forest is not possible because they still have yet to regain their wild instincts after years out of their natural habitat, Nico said.

At the centre, the orangutans, many of them rescued from illegal traders, are taught to jump, look for food and detect predators.

The government has deployed warships and set up temporary shelters equipped with air purifiers for vulnerable citizens affected by the haze.

An estimated 25 million people have been exposed to the haze on Sumatra and Indonesian Borneo, authorities said, with haze also drifting to Java, including the capital Jakarta.

Forest fires are an annual occurrence on Sumatra and Borneo but experts said this year’s blazes have been especially bad because of the El Nino weather phenomenon.

Land clearing by burning to make way for agriculture is illegal in Indonesia but is a common practice.