Indonesia’s disaster chief has rejected criticism his country is not doing enough to fight forest fires blanketing Southeast Asia in smog.
Indonesia has come under growing pressure from its neighbours in recent weeks as thick smoke from fires on Sumatra and the Indonesian part of Borneo have sent pollution levels soaring in Malaysia and Singapore, where schools have been closed and major outdoor events cancelled.
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The problem is being blamed on Indonesia’s inability to prevent big plantation companies from burning forests to clear land for new trees.
The head of Indonesia’s disaster agency said all possible resources were being used to fight the fires.
“We have done the best we can,” Willem Rampangilei told reporters on Tuesday. “It is understandable if other countries are upset, but we Indonesians are more upset.”
The blazes flare up annually during the dry season as fires are illegally set to clear land for cultivation. But an El Nino weather system has made conditions drier, with this year’s haze on track to be the worst on record.
Pollution in Singapore and Malaysia has risen beyond hazardous levels since the haze outbreak began last month, while levels more than five times that limit have been recorded on the Indonesian part of Borneo island. Borneo is shared between Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei.
The haze has had a devastating impact on people’s health in Indonesia, and more than 140,000 people have reported respiratory infections in smog-choked areas.
Masks are being handed out on the streets, and local health officials are recommending that they be worn both outdoors and indoors in order to minimise contact with pollutants.
The smoke haze has also spread to Thailand, prompting Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha to call for a regional meeting on the crisis.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has urged Indonesia to take action, saying only Jakarta has the authority to investigate the cause of the fires and convict those responsible.
Indonesia said more than 200 companies, most of them from Southeast Asia, were being investigated on suspicion of causing fires.
Schools in many parts of Malaysia were closed for a second straight day on Tuesday, part of a two-day shutdown announced at the weekend as pollution levels soared. Air quality readings were unhealthy along parts of country’s west coast facing Sumatra.
Singapore has offered to help combat the fires, volunteering a Hercules plane and IT expertise, but Indonesia has insisted it has the equipment necessary to do the job.
Rampangilei said Indonesia had four planes on standby to conduct cloud seeding, but conditions in the past week had stymied attempts to produce artificial rain.