Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono on Saturday for left the island of Sumatra to lead efforts to quell massive forest fires that have so far proved fruitless.
The two-week emergency status imposed over the fires that are still ripping through vast tracts of forest on the island was extended on Wednesday last week as water-bombing proved futile.
Yudhoyono last week criticized the response led by officials in Riau Province and on Friday said he would take control of the response.
“I want the regional officials in Riau to stand on the frontline to prevent and handle this haze. Why is it still happening? The people have become victims,” he wrote, adding that “the results are unsatisfactory.”
A report by the Washington-based World Resources Institute last week said the fires were cloaking areas in thick smog and were the worst on Sumatra since the blazes that ravaged the area in June last year, when the choking haze reached as far as Singapore and Malaysia.
Air pollution in some parts of Riau have hit “dangerous” levels in recent days, with 50,000 people receiving treatment for respiratory illnesses, Indonesia’s National Agency for Disaster Management said, while schools and some businesses have been forced to close.
Like Sumatra, Malaysia has been experiencing weeks of drought, with haze levels in some parts reaching hazardous levels on Friday, according to the Malaysian Department of Environment’s Web site.
Malaysia showed a drop in pollutant levels on Saturday and light rains began to fall in Riau late on Saturday, disaster agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho said, adding that the team had been cloud-seeding all week.
The World Resources Institute report said “clearing land for agriculture was the major direct cause of the fires,” adding that, based on images by Global Forest Watch — a Web site that tracks fires in near real time — paper giants Asia Pulp & Paper and Asia Pacific Resources International had significant fires in their concession areas.
Asia Pulp & Paper, which has no-burn and zero-deforestation policies in place, did not address the claims, but said: “We do not practice and highly condemn slash-and-burn activity for its detrimental impact on the environment.”