JAKARTA: From reduced state coffers, overwhelmed hospitals to shortages in face masks, the COVID-19 pandemic is expected to present unprecedented challenges in Indonesia's fight against another disaster - the annual forest and land fires.
Since the beginning of the year, more than 38,000 ha of forests and peatlands have been burned but the Indonesian Meteorology and Climatology Agency (BMKG) predicted that the worse has yet to come since the dry season would peak between August and September.
Although the BMKG predicted that the fires would not be as severe as the ones in 2019 when the dry season lasted until November, officials are forced to deal with two national disasters at once this year.
The Ministry of the Environment and Forestry, one of the institutions tasked with putting out forest and peatland fires, revealed that it had to cut its annual budget for forest fire mitigation by 39 per cent because of the pandemic.
“Because of COVID-19, the government has decided to divert much of our resources to deal with the pandemic,” the ministry’s director-general for climate change Ruandha Agung Sugardiman said in an online discussion last month.
“These include manpower, volunteers, state coffers and money to buy equipment. Everything is redirected to deal with COVID-19.”
Mr Sugardiman said the central government is hoping that provincial and regency administrations would fork out 70 per cent of the expenses needed to combat forest fires, while the ministry covers the rest.
“It would be hard to control forest and land fires otherwise,” he said.
However, regional governments have also been struggling financially because of the pandemic.
The Finance Ministry revealed last month that 530 provinces, regencies and cities had to redirect their expenditures to fight the COVID-19 pandemic and mitigate its economic impact through social welfare programmes and cash aids. Some regions also had to deal with decreased revenues because of the economic slowdown.
Home Affairs Minister Mr Tito Karnavian said last week that regional governments have been told to find alternative sources of funding to prevent and fight forest fires, including redirecting the Village Funds programme meant to spur economic growth in underdeveloped villages.
“We are encouraging (regional governments) to make use of its village funds (programme) and create forest fire-free villages,” he said after a Cabinet meeting on forest fires on Jul 2, according to local reports.
Mr Karnavian said regional governments are also encouraged to cooperate with private companies for funding, saying that “there are many big companies which are willing to contribute because they too are affected by the fires.”
INCREASED HEALTH RISK
At least 500,000 ha of forests and peatland were burned each year in Indonesia, caused by prolonged drought and the illegal slash-and-burn practices to clear land for agricultural purposes.
Last year, 1.6 million ha were burned, making it the worst forest fires in the country since the 2015 Southeast Asian haze crisis where haze from Indonesia affected millions of people in several countries in the region.
In 2015, 2.6 million ha of forests and peat lands were on fire.
More than 900,000 people in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore reported respiratory illnesses during last year’s forest and peatland fires, according to findings from the World Bank.
At least two provinces, South Sumatra and Central Kalimantan, have declared a state of emergency as forest fires began to spread across the archipelago.
Meanwhile, thousands of officials have been deployed to combat forest fires in Sumatra, Java and the Indonesian side of Borneo, while many more are being readied.
“If forest fire rages again this year and air quality deteriorates, it will have grave impact on people’s health - not just in Indonesia but also its neighbouring countries - especially as the world still battles with the COVID-19 pandemic,” public health expert Hermawan Saputra told CNA.
“People will become more susceptible to COVID-19 because of reduced immunity. Health risk for COVID-19 patients will increase significantly and their condition might deteriorate.”
Dr Wiendra Waworuntu of the Ministry of Health said that the government has begun to look into the problem since May.
The ministry’s director for infectious disease prevention and control said the government has been trying to figure out ways to prevent COVID-19 patients’ conditions from deteriorating in the midst of a forest fire haze. The government was also anticipating shortages in hospital beds, respirators and face masks.
“There could be a shortage in face masks, equipment and beds if forest fire rages and haze appears, especially if they happen when COVID-19 is at its peak,” she told a press conference recently. “We are trying to address these problems.”
More than 66,000 people in Indonesia have contracted COVID-19, and at least 3,000 of whom have died, making Indonesia the worst-hit country in Southeast Asia.
JOKOWI STRESSES ON PREVENTION
During a cabinet meeting on Jun 23, President Joko Widodo told his ministers to prepare for forest and peatland fires as Indonesia enters the dry season.
“Even though we are busy fighting the pandemic, we mustn’t forget that we also have a big job to do in anticipating land and forest fires,” he said.
The president, popularly known as Jokowi, said he wanted to see officials preventing forest fires from happening in the first place.
“The littlest of fire must be put out immediately. Don’t let fire rages and then we try to put it out,” he said.
Jokowi also stressed on the importance of early detection of hotspots and identifying lands which are prone to fire.
“The ecosystem must be managed consistently. Make sure that peatlands stay wet. We have done it before. We just have to do it consistently,” he said.