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Haze back in Riau as farmers slash and burn

An unusual dry spell in Riau over the past fortnight has seen farmers taking the opportunity to start fires to clear land, creating haze over the city of Dumai and elsewhere in the Indonesian province second-closest to Singapore.

Dumai was at the epicentre of the worst haze in the region in years last June, when air pollutant levels hit record highs in nearby Singapore and Malaysia.

On Wednesday morning, more intense haze was reported in West Kalimantan, and flights at Pontianak’s Supadio airport were disrupted for several hours due to low visibility.

The new Riau fires suggest that the root cause of last year’s severe transboundary haze has yet to be resolved, even as officials step up action against offenders.

Open burning is against Indonesian law but the law is widely flouted.

“Farmers used the two weeks without rain to carry out slash- and-burn,” Tri Budiarto, the National Disaster Management Agency’s deputy for emergency management, said in Jakarta on Wednesday.

“We are closely monitoring the situation in these areas.”

So far, Singapore has been spared, but experienced slightly hazy conditions Wednesday morning, the National Environment Agency (NEA) said in a statement.

With the northeast monsoon prevailing, the likelihood that Singapore will be affected by the haze is low, said an NEA spokesman.

The air pollutant index in Dumai, some 270km north-west of Singapore, fell from 186 on Tuesday morning to 89 on Wednesday. A reading above 100 is deemed unhealthy.

The Bengkalis and Meranti Islands districts, south-east of Dumai, also saw haze from burning peatland. The area has many oil palm plantations.

This is usually Indonesia’s rainy season, which tends to last till March.

But Riau and West and Central Kalimantan are instead seeing raging fires even as disaster workers tackle floods across Java.

The local authorities in Riau and affected areas of Kalimantan have appealed to residents to wear a mask outdoors.

Dumai residents such as Rahimi, who is in her 30s, fear a repeat of last year’s severe haze, when many people suffered respiratory infections.

“We are worried this haze will spread and stay like it did last year,” she said.

Riau Disaster Mitigation Agency head Said Saqlul Amri said that a recent drop in hot spots detected by satellite was likely to be momentary as the hot weather looked set to continue - a point also made by weather forecasters in Pontianak.

The Jakarta Post reported that, apart from forests and farms, seven hot spots were spotted in oil palm plantations and forest concessions.

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