Indonesia Prepares Cloud Seeding as Haze Returns

Indonesia has prepared planes to artificially induce rain as neighboring Singapore and Malaysia raised concern that a resurgence in Sumatran forest fires has begun engulfing parts of Southeast Asia with haze again.

Satellite images showed the number of fire hotspots in the Sumatran province of Riau rose to 185 today from 165 yesterday, Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, a spokesman for Indonesia’s disaster management agency, said by text message. With August to October the peak period for forest fires, six planes have been readied for cloud-seeding and soldiers placed on standby to be deployed as fire-fighters, the agency said in a July 22 statement.

“Haze is shrouding Riau causing visibility to drop,” Nugroho said in the statement, adding that water bombing of fires was already underway. “This condition is disrupting flights in and out of Pekanbaru,” he said, referring to the provincial capital.

The returning haze will test Indonesia’s resolve to combat illegal forest blazes after the nation rejected a request last week to make available to the public maps of plantation concessions in fire-prone areas. Singapore and Malaysia, where air pollution reached hazardous levels in June, have been plagued for decades by periodic smog caused by clouds of ash drifting from Sumatra, with regular spats over responsibility.

Indonesia sent more than 3,000 soldiers, marines and air force officers to fight forest fires in June, helping quell Singapore’s worst smog in 16 years. The number of fire hotspots dropped after cloud-seeding planes released chemicals into the air to induce rain.

Digitized Maps

Malaysia wrote to Indonesia registering concern over the returning haze, its environment ministry said in an e-mailed statement yesterday, as air pollution climbed to unhealthy levels in three parts of the country. Singapore has similarly sought an “urgent” update on efforts to tackle the fires, its environment agency said July 22.

Air pollution eased in Malaysia’s states of Malacca, Johor and Selangor today, though climbed to an unhealthy level in part of Perak, according to Department of Environment readings at 1 p.m. local time. About 99 percent of Indonesian estate and forest fires are caused by people burning land, Nugroho said in the statement.

Malaysia hosted a ministerial meeting on trans-boundary haze on July 17. Indonesia agreed to share its digitized maps of land use and concessions between governments as part of a joint monitoring initiative, though only on condition that they’re not made public. Vivian Balakrishnan, Singapore’s environment and water resources minister, called for the data to be made public so that companies owning land can be punished.

Indonesia’s parliament may ratify a regional haze treaty by the end of this year or early next year, Balthasar Kambuaya, Indonesia’s environment minister, said July 17. Under this agreement, it would share information and get more assistance from neighboring Southeast Asian governments, according to Nigel Sizer, director of the World Resources Institute’s Global Forest Initiative.

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