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Flights can't land in haze-shrouded Pekanbaru

Thick haze over the provincial capital of Riau has forced almost every single flight to turn back from Pekanbaru airport over the past two days, as the number of hot spots shot up to 488 on Monday.

Visibility has been worsening as the number of hot spots rose to their highest level since June, when the highest haze readings in 16 years were recorded in neighbouring countries.

Schools were closed and people donned masks yesterday as the smell of burning intensified and visibility dropped to less than 500m.

“This morning, the haze was so bad that you can see it in the living room and the burning smell is suffocating,” Mr Rusmadya Maharuddin, a Pekanbaru resident and forest campaigner, told The Straits Times by phone yesterday.

The worsening conditions have raised fears of haze shrouding the region again.

In its advisory yesterday, Singapore’s National Environment Agency (NEA) said the number of hot spots detected in Sumatra yesterday remained high at 308 and moderate to dense smoke haze was observed to have extended over the Strait of Malacca.

While Singapore may experience hazy conditions, it said that the PSI was expected to be in the “good” band today and the PM2.5 is expected to be slightly elevated.

More worrying is the fact that the return of the haze underlines the lack of progress by Indonesia in stopping the clearing of land by illegal burning. Farmers and big plantation companies continue to defy sanctions and tough talk of clampdowns.

At least one fire was reported closer to Singapore - in Bintan - where farmers were seen burning land to open up areas for harvest, but it did not show up on the NEA’s satellite map.

Forest watchers predict hot spots from forest fires could increase until October.

“It is now very hot in Pekanbaru with very little rain. Activities after the (Idul Fitri) break have picked up and that could mean more burnings as this is still the season to clear land,” said Mr Rusmadya, a forest campaigner for the Greenpeace group.

Indonesia’s National Disaster Management Agency (BNPB) has resumed water bombings, cloud-seeding sorties and land operations to snuff out fires.

The spike in hot spots prompted Singapore’s Minister for Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan to take to Facebook on Monday.

“An exercise in frustration - big increase in hot spots (488) in Sumatra today. We have been spared so far because of wind direction,” he wrote.

“We remain at risk. Have to keep up the pressure on Indonesian authorities and companies to do the right thing for the sake of their own citizens and ours.”

BNPB spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho urged the Forestry, Agriculture and Environment and other agencies to step up monitoring and enforcement.

“Implementing the law is the key to overcoming land and forest burnings,” he said.

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