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Indonesia’s Joko Widodo orders army to fight haze, tackle ‘every hotspot, however small’

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Indonesian President Joko Widodo said he ordered the military and the police to tackle forest fires after neighbouring countries complained that smoke from the burning is making the air unhealthy.

“When there is fire, there will be smoke, and if there is wind it can get anywhere,” the president, known as Jokowi, told reporters in Jakarta on Saturday. “I have ordered the military chief and the police to handle every hotspot, however small, immediately.”

Singapore and Malaysia have complained about the spread of choking haze from the fires. Singapore’s 24-hour PSI air pollution readings in the centre and east of the island rose above 100 on Saturday, a level described as “unhealthy,” according to the National Environment Agency website. They dropped to 96 by 2pm on Sunday.

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Likewise, 13 areas in Peninsular Malaysia recorded unhealthy air quality on Sunday with the highest reading of 163 in Malacca and Batu Pahat, according to the Air Pollutant Index of Malaysia’s website.

Haze is a recurring problem in Southeast Asia, disrupting tourism, causing severe respiratory illness and costing local economies billions of dollars. It mostly originates from natural or man-made fires in Indonesia and Malaysia during the dry season. Many of the blazes result from illegal burning to clear farmland for cash crops such as palm oil, a practice that persists despite years of government efforts to stamp it out.

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Asean pledges to eliminate crop-burning amid Indonesia-Malaysia cross-border haze dispute

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Fires are often the worst at the height of the dry season in August and September, but in El Nino years, rains are often delayed, allowing the burning to spread into October and beyond. Almost 3,000 hotspots were detected in Indonesia in mid-September, with Sumatra and the Indonesian part of Borneo island, called Kalimantan, accounting for more than two thirds, according to the National Disaster Mitigation Agency.

“In this prolonged dry season, the heat is above normal,” Jokowi said. “Land and forest fires don’t just happen in Indonesia but also in the US, Canada. Here we can still control it better.” He said the situation is far different from the strong El Nino in 2015, when haze blanketed the region.

Singapore’s Marina Bay skyline shrouded with haze last month. Photo: AFP

During that season, about 2.6 million hectares burned and the haze lingered for weeks, causing more than 100,000 premature deaths, according to researchers at Harvard and Columbia universities. In the El Nino of 1997, almost twice as much land burned.

Indonesia’s weather bureau has said the wet season may be delayed this year until late October or November in Sumatra and Kalimantan, and even as late as December in some parts of the country.

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