Indonesia: Navy remains on standby as haze pollution victims pass half-million mark

Tama Salim, The Jakarta Post 7 Nov 15;

The Navy will keep three of its vessels on standby for evacuations at the Banjarmasin base in South Kalimantan, as the number of people affected by respiratory illnesses resulting from air pollution surpasses half a million.

Navy chief of staff Admiral Ade Supandi said on Friday that three vessels would remain at the base for deployment in the event of deteriorating haze conditions that might prompt an immediate evacuation of residents.

“[They] remain on standby in Banjarmasin, the order hasn’t been revoked. You wouldn’t expect the Navy to leave, would you?” Ade told reporters at the Navy headquarters in Cilangkap, East Jakarta.

Ade said the KRI Dr. Suharso, KRI Banda Aceh and KRI Teluk Jakarta — all landing platform dock-type (LPD) ships that can accommodate large groups of people — would remain in the vicinity until their services were no longer needed.

“We’re also there on standby patrol if required; the government has basically tasked us with the role of assisting mitigation efforts in relation to the health aspect, but we will also continue to carry out our regular defense duties for as long as the ships are at the naval base,” he explained.

Last month, the government declared a contingency plan after ongoing efforts to extinguish the fires had proved ineffective.

With thousands of people falling sick from the haze every week, the government saw few alternative solutions other evacuating people from the worst-affected areas.

Coordinating Political, Legal and Security Affairs Minister Luhut Panjaitan said at the time that state officials were mulling the use of vessels belonging to the Navy and state-owned shipping line PT Pelni to accommodate residents for the next four to five months.

Meanwhile, the National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) announced on Friday morning that at least 556,945 people had been diagnosed with various forms of acute respiratory infections (ISPA) as a result of the pollution produced by forest and peatland fires.

According to BNPB spokesperson Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, Jambi and South Sumatra provinces were the worst-affected areas, with the former recording 151,839 cases of ISPA and the latter with 115,484 victims.

In Riau province 81,958 cases were reported, 1,307 people contracted pneumonia and another 3,764 suffered from asthma. South Kalimantan, where the Navy ships are based, also reported a high occurrence of ISPA with around 95,000 cases.

Sutopo said that although the air quality had not yet returned to its normal level there was no need for evacuations.

Ongoing efforts to clear the haze and extinguish the persisting fires, which have razed almost 2 million hectares this year, have continued to produce varying results, with hotspots emerging despite some welcome rainfall earlier in the week.

On Friday, there remain 77 hot spots in Sumatra and 63 in Kalimantan. Visibility also differed from city to city, with Palembang once again being the worst-affected area with a visibility level of 1,200 meters.

— JP/Tama Salim