Tue, 11 Mar 2003

ASEAN agency warns RI of severe drought

Moch. N. Kurniawan, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

The ASEAN Specialized Meteorological Center (ASMC) has warned Indonesia of severe drought that might exacerbate haze in the country between July and October this year.

Deputy State Minister of the Environment for Environmental Conservation Liana Bratasida said on Monday that ASMC issued the warning during a meeting in Manila, the Philippines last week.

"ASMC has warned us that although El Nino has weakened, Indonesia must be alert to haze due to annual forest fires," she told The Jakarta Post on Monday.

She called on the public not to clear land through burning when converting forests into plantations and urged local government to take legal action against those who still did that.

Last week, the Meteorology and Geophysics Agency (BMG) also warned that East Kalimantan, the northern part of West Kalimantan and Central Kalimantan would be hit by drought this year due to their unusually low rainfall.

It also called on the public and companies there not to clear land by using slash-and-burn methods as it would only result in choking haze.

However, according to the Indonesian Forum on the Environment (Walhi), cheap slash-and-burn methods were still used by plantation firms and local people, as thick haze had started to blanket Pekanbaru, Riau; Palembang, South Sumatra; and Pontianak, West Kalimantan.

The haze has caused respiratory problems in Pontianak, with the town's mayor Buchari Abdurrahman calling on his citizens to put on masks. It also caused eye irritation in Pekanbaru and Palembang.

Walhi claimed that plantation firms were emboldened to burn land as the government appeared to have no intention to take legal action against the perpetrators, despite the existence of the ban.

The Ministry of Forestry, however, is still unsure about the source of the haze, although it discovered over 227 hotspots in Riau via satellite last Thursday.

The Ministry has not yet found any hotspots in West Kalimantan and South Sumatra due to cloudy conditions.

Walhi executive director Longgena Ginting said that the government must strictly enforce its ban on forest conversion and land clearance through slash-and-burn.

"The ban must be seriously enforced ... which means that any perpetrators that burn land must be put into jail," he said. "Otherwise, we will see more damaging haze this year."

Director general of forest protection and natural conservation I Made Subadia admitted that relevant ministries still worked without coordination in tackling the haze problem.

Bodies charged with responsibility for tackling the haze problem include the Ministry of Forestry, the Office of the State Minister of the Environment, the Ministry of Agriculture and several national agencies.

"We are now putting together a coordinating team to tackle the problem," he said.

He also said his ministry had deployed five brigades late last year, each comprising over 100 personnel, to Riau, North Sumatra, Jambi, West Kalimantan and Central Kalimantan, which are prone to forest fires.

"We expect the brigades to be able to prevent forest fires and if there are any, to contain them, " he said.

This year, the Ministry of Forestry will deploy 10 more brigades in a number of locations including Bengkulu, West Sumatra, South Kalimantan, East Kalimantan, and South Sulawesi.