SINGAPORE: Even as climatologists expect drier weather to hit the region later in July, Indonesia’s South Sumatran governor Alex Noerdin promised that there would be no haze originating from his province for this year and the next couple of years.
“I guarantee there is no fire ... no haze from South Sumatra province this year, and the next year, and the next year," Mr Noerdin pledged at the fourth Sustainable World Resources dialogue here on Thursday (Apr 6).
Indonesia's head of the Peatland Restoration Agency, Nazir Foead, made a similar promise during last year's edition of the dialogue, saying there was "zero chance" that the region would experience the same bout of haze in 2016 as it did the previous year.
Fires in the province’s forests, along with those in Riau, Jambi and Kalimantan, sparked one of the region’s worst haze crisis in 2015. In South Sumatra itself, 700,000ha forests and peatland were damaged from the blaze, the governor said.
With international support, including Singapore's, there have been various efforts to put out the fires. The Indonesian authorities have also put in place tighter measures to prevent a repeat of the choking haze two years ago.
Singapore's Environment and Water Resources Minister Masagos Zulkifli, who was at the dialogue, outlined some of these in his speech. For instance, it has put in place a five-year moratorium that halts the draining and clearing of new peatland, including the existing concession land owned by plantation companies.
Mr Masagos said that the efforts have paid off, noting that there were only over 100 hotspots last year as compared to thousands in 2015.
Riau and Jambi provinces have also taken quick action to combat fires this year, caused by dry weather, he said.
"Indonesia acted promptly by declaring a state of emergency in Riau on Jan 24. This allowed for the timely deployment of resource and tighter coordination between the central and provincial authorities in containing the fires", he added.
Singapore Institute of International Affairs chairman Simon Tay, who spoke at the conference, also said Indonesia has "done better". “It realises the costs for itself are incredibly high. Estimates have come up that Indonesia suffered US$17 billion (S$23.8 billion) in damage due to the fires and haze in 2015."
However, Associate Professor Tay cautioned that "blue skies are not guaranteed”. Industry experts, think tanks and meteorologists have attributed haze-free skies last year to wetter weather.
But Mr Noerdin was confident. “We already proved this last year with our efforts in the field. So there was no fire last year. For this year, we’re strengthening our efforts.”
For example, more than 160 villages in South Sumatra have now been trained - from the head of the villages down to its people - to handle fires and even prevent them at the onset. They are also given fire-extinguishing equipment, he said.
“The most important stakeholders are the people. We have to socialise the people not to burn the forests for small plantations, but also to guard them,” he added. “They must be given the knowledge of how important forests are for the future, not just for this generation.”
Four hundred thousand hectares of burned land in the province are currently being restored with the help of local and international non-governmental organisations, Mr Noerdin said.