Indonesia to host forest fire meeting


Indonesia will host a four-nation meeting on July 19 to find ways to combat forest fires raging on Sumatra and Borneo as smoke from the blazes drives up pollution levels in the region.

Environment officials from Brunei, Malaysia and Singapore will be keen to see how promised measures translate into concrete action and how Indonesia’s neighbors may be called upon to help at Thursday’s meeting in Jakarta.

“We’ll find out more when we meet them on 19th July. So far it’s contact through letters,” Loh Ah Tuan, a director at Singapore’s Ministry of the Environment, told a news conference on Friday.

“Our sense is that there is a commitment on their part to actually deal with the fires.”

Indonesia drew harsh criticism from its neighbors in 1997 when smoke from fires lit by slash-and-burn farmers blanketed large parts of Southeast Asia, hurting tourism and prompting health concerns across the region.

Indonesian authorities have asked Australian firefighters to help them put out fires now hitting parts of Sumatra and Borneo. Hazy Singapore, smoky Kuala Lumpur

The sky over Kuala Lumpur changed little on Friday, with sunshine burning weakly through the smoke and the landmark Petronas Twin Towers appearing as a silhouette from outside the center of the Malaysian capital.

Indonesian officials reported some improvement on Borneo, while a light haze veiled sunny skies over Singapore.

Despite the city state’s proximity to the blazes on Sumatra, favorable winds helped to keep pollution readings in the “good” range until late on Thursday.

Singapore has seen none of the smoke that blackened skies over parts of Thailand and Malaysia this week but readings taken by the Ministry of the Environment on Friday showed counts had edged into the “moderate” category.

“The situation will not change very much in what we’re experiencing in Singapore — a slight to moderate haze — and I don’t think it will deteriorate,” Wong Teo Suan, deputy director of the Meteorological Service of Singapore, told Reuters.

“By next week, we expect a strengthening of the southeasterly winds blowing from Australia and there should be some slight improvement from next week onwards.”

Singapore was due to see some smoke haze as winds shifted, but the environment ministry said pollution levels were unlikely to hit those seen four years ago during fires in Indonesia exacerbated by the El Nino weather phenomenon.

A change in wind direction and some rain have helped to improve the situation in Thailand and Malaysia. Getting better or worse?

Malaysia’s New Straits Times newspaper said the smoke was a regional problem but urged Indonesia to confront the issue.

“We are confident that it is not beyond the capacity of the Indonesian authorities to exercise greater vigilance and impose strict punishment on the culprits,” the newspaper said in an editorial on Friday.

On Thursday, the Malaysian Medical Association advised the sick and elderly to avoid outdoor activities. Earlier this week, Selangor state told schools to stop all outdoor activities.

An official in charge of air quality management in West Kalimantan province, in the Indonesian part of Borneo, told Reuters air quality and visibility improved on Friday.

Some aircraft had encountered visibility problems while landing and taking off from the capital Pontianak on Thursday, the official said.

“We cannot predict for the coming days whether it will be getting better or not,” the official said.