An Indonesian soldier putting out fire in Rimbo Panjang, Kampar, Riau, on Friday. The smog has become so bad that Jakarta has declared a state of emergency in Riau province, the Ground Zero.
More than 22,500 cases of acute respiratory tract infections have so far been recorded in southern Sumatra. And more than 1.5 million students have been affected by school closures in Malaysia and Indonesia.
Hundreds of flights from the badly hit areas have been cancelled while thousands of foreign tourists chose to stay away from this region.
The smog has become so bad that Jakarta has declared a state of emergency in Riau province, the Ground Zero.
So far the Indonesian authorities have arrested executives from seven companies suspected of being partly responsible for the illegal forest and plantation fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan. Officials from another 20 companies were under investigation.
The annual choking haze, or rather smog, in Southeast Asia has again made headlines around the world. And this man-made phenomenon, which first started in 1997, has not failed to appear at least once a year and each time lasted for weeks.
Despite Indonesia finally ratifying the Asean agreement on transboundary haze pollution last year after a 14-year delay, this persistent, annual problem that disrupts lives and costs Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia billions of dollars, is not about to vanish anytime soon.
CNN said there are as many as 1,143 hot spots along the Sumatran coast at present where fires are burning. This year’s strong El Nino has exacerbated the problem, creating extra dry conditions that fan the flames.
There is an app, Air4ASEAN, that smartphone users can download to get almost real-time information on the areas in Southeast Asia that are afflicted with the haze.
Developed by the Thai government, it offers data for each of the 10 Asean members on hot spots and air quality levels.
Despite the Asean pact that came into effect in 2002, the haze problem has not gone away and will not go away quickly.
There is still a huge gap between what has been agreed at the Asean level and what is happening on the ground in Indonesia for “people-centric” Asean to achieve its haze-free goal by 2020.
And statements coming out of Jakarta are not helping at times. Diplomatically, the annual fires have caused sparks with Singapore and Malaysia, putting pressure on Indonesia to do more to put out the blaze.
Recently, in a repeat of past years, Indonesian Vice-President Jusuf Kalla rapped neighbouring countries for complaining about the haze, and asked them instead to be grateful for the clean air they enjoy for the rest of the year.
“For 11 months, they enjoyed nice air from Indonesia and they never thanked us,” he said. “They have suffered because of the haze for one month and they get upset.”
It was a flashback to 2013, when Agung Laksono, a minister in the previous government, hit out at murmurs from Singapore, which was shrouded in the haze.
“Singapore shouldn’t be like children, in such a tizzy,” he said.
Some days later, his colleague Jero Wacik warned Malaysia and Singapore not to “tell stories to the world”.
These remarks prompted then president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to apologise for the haze.
In reference to that, Jusuf said Indonesia has repeatedly apologised for the forest fires that led to unhealthy air conditions in Singapore and Malaysia.
On Friday, Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi met Jusuf in Jakarta and said both capitals would work together to resolve the haze problem.
In the first place, we should not regard the billowing smoke from forest and plantation fires as mere “haze”.
The Western media has long defined this as “smog” — a type of air pollutant combined with fog in an unhealthy or irritating mixture. In short, the Asean secretariat should have adopted the term “transboundary air pollution” in its documents.
In recent weeks, tens of thousands of people have fled Pekanbaru in Sumatra to escape the smog, according to media reports.
Air quality index readings have been as high as 983 in Pekanbaru — anything over 200 is unhealthy — while numbers are fluctuating between unhealthy and very unhealthy in Singapore and Malaysia, depending on the wind.
One Greenpeace media campaigner in Indonesia has described how he left his village with his daughter and pregnant wife to try to escape the haze. “But like a dark cloud over my head, I’ve since discovered that wherever I go, smoke follows,” he says.
What can Jakarta do? Indonesia has strict plantation laws and a company found guilty of clearing land by burning can be fined up to 10 billion rupiah and its management faces up to 10 years in jail.
Recently, Indonesia’s Supreme Court upheld charges against palm oil producer PT Kallista Alam, after the company was accused of illegally burning a large area of protected forest in Aceh in 2012. They were ordered to pay a whopping 366 billion rupiah in fines, according to the Jakarta Post.
Despite these tough measures, environmentalists say companies continue to flout the law.
Analysts say the reasons for this problem are alleged incompetent and corrupt law enforcement. The authorities there should not be timid and indolent in dealing with this seemingly unstoppable menace.
The writer is NSTP group managing editor