Indonesia: Riau gears up for dry season in late May

Govt, disaster agencies have started efforts to prevent forest fires by keeping peatlands wet
Wahyudi Soeriaatmadja, Straits Times AsiaOne 18 Feb 16;

The Indonesian province of Riau has made an early start to prepare for the next dry season, expected to begin in late May, by preventing forest and land fires.

Riau is just across the Strait of Malacca from Singapore and, earlier this week, the eastern part of the province recorded two hot spots - one in Dumai and another in the Meranti islands. The authorities quickly put out the fires, said Mr Sugarin, head of the meteorology, climatology and geophysics agency (BMKG) in Pekanbaru, Riau's capital.

"The provincial government, police, disaster agency and military here have started doing canal blocking in a bid to keep our peatlands wet," Mr Sugarin told The Straits Times over the telephone from Pekanbaru yesterday.

Burning peatlands, large areas of which have been cleared and drained for agriculture, caused vast clouds of choking smoke during last year's haze episode. The Indonesian government is now working on efforts to block up canals and flood dried-out peatlands.

The eastern part of Riau, which includes Bengkalis, Meranti islands and Dumai, has had drier weather than the rest of the province and a higher alert has been issued for the area, Mr Sugarin added.

Indonesia has suffered haze episodes in most years since the major 1997 to 1998 fires. The blazes are mostly caused by farmers and companies clearing land by illegal slash-and-burn techniques to save costs. Last year's haze, which reached its peak in October and was fuelled by severe drought, sent air pollution indexes to record levels across large parts of Kalimantan, Sumatra, Singapore and Malaysia.

The haze left thousands of people ill and cost Indonesia billions of dollars in firefighting, health and transport disruption costs. The Indonesian government has pledged to get tough on firms that burn land to make way for replanting.

On Jan 18, President Joko Widodo vowed to sack local military and police chiefs who are unable to control the spread of fires in their provinces, to help ensure Indonesia will not see a repeat of last year's haze crisis.

Speaking to reporters at the presidential palace at the time, he said he expected all levels of the military and police hierarchy in affected regions to get involved in efforts to contain fires.

Local military and police chiefs who manage to tackle the problem would be promoted, he said.

Last December, the government suspended the business licences of 16 companies, while three others saw their licences revoked for illegal land burning.

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