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Smog fears rise as forest fires, drought hit Indonesia

Karon Snowdon for Asia Pacific, Saturday March 8, 2014 - 09:13 EDT

Hundreds of fires burning in Indonesia are triggering renewed fears that there could be a repeat of last year's smog crisis.

Indonesian authorities are preparing for worsening forest fires as smoke haze spreads across the Malacca Strait to Singapore.

Around 1,500 - mostly illegal - fires across 8,000 hectares have been detected in Riau province in Sumatra, where thousands of people are suffering respiratory problems and a state of emergency has been declared.

A lack of monsoon rain has also meant that fires have started months earlier than usual.

Last year the haze reached crisis point and sparked diplomatic tensions between Indonesia and its neighbours Singapore and Malaysia.

Daniel Murdiyarso, principal scientist from the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), says the early fires mean the haze problem could be worse this year.

"Well, this time the wind direction is going to the south west and if it is changed in the other half which is about three months time things, will be worse," he said.

The Jakarta-based World Resources Institute is tracking fires on the ground using NASA satellites.

The satellite data allows the Institute to pinpoint with 90 per cent accuracy where the fires are located.

"The fire episode that started around mid to the end of February this year is pretty concerning," the Institute's Andika Putraditama said.

"We detected almost 1,500 fire points in the northern part of Sumatra alone in a two-week period of time from the February 20 to March 3."

Research from the CIFOR revealed last year's fires were deliberately lit to clear land.

Burning to extend palm oil plantations is illegal, but prosecutions are rare despite accurate mapping.

Progress on a regional response has also been slow. Indonesia has yet to ratify the 12-year-old ASEAN treaty on joint haze monitoring.

The next high-level meeting of the ASEAN Transboundary Haze Pollution Committee is scheduled to be held in April.


© ABC 2014

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