For the first time in 18 years, the Indonesian province of Riau in Sumatra has managed to prevent haze caused by raging forest fires, from choking the province.
Last year was especially bad – Riau and five other provinces in Indonesia declared states of emergency because of the haze, and schools and airports were shut down.
The region was also affected with the haze spreading to Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand.
But early intervention this year, has helped prevent a repeat of the situation.
Residents of Pekanbaru in Riau are enjoying the outdoors once again after years of being choked by haze from forest fires this time of year.
Air quality and visibility have been in the moderate range in most days and in most areas.
At its peak last year, there were more than a thousand hotspots in Riau alone, compared to just over a hundred detected this year.
And with the rainy season now on its way, it appears the worst is over.
“The peak of the dry season has passed. It was predicted to be from June and August. In fact we forecast some parts of Riau should have experienced some rain,” said Aristya Ardhitama, a climatologist at the Riau Meteorological Agency.
This year, the Indonesian authorities acted early to prevent forest fires – a lesson they learned from last year’s catastrophe, when the haze reached hazardous levels.
As early as six months ago, authorities declared a state of emergency in Riau and 5 other provinces, enabling more resources to be deployed.
More than 6,000 personnel were mobilised in Riau province alone, assisted by firefighting planes equipped to douse the fires and prevent them from spreading.
Cloud-seeding operations were also carried out to induce rain.
Edwar Sanger, the head of the Riau Disaster Mitigation Agency said: “According to the meteorological agency rainy season starts in October. Therefore if we can maintain the current smog-free situation for the next 20 days, we will create history after having suffered over the last 18 years. God willing there won’t be any more smog in Riau. This is demonstrated by no shutdown of schools and airport, no distribution of masks and so on. We are grateful.”
However, authorities are aware that forest fires and the ensuing haze will need much more time to be completely eradicated.
Most farmers still use the slash and burn practice to clear their land. Oil palm plantation companies that use them as part of their supply chain exacerbate the problem.
“We always try to educate to the communities not to stop clear the land by burning. They should find alternative ways. We’ve explained this,” said Edwar.
Weak enforcement is another challenge, made worse by alleged corrupt practices that have been around for decades.
So, residents in Riau – for the first time in almost 2 decades – are enjoying cleaner air. But there is no guarantee this will continue when the next dry season comes along. Fighting fires for half a year every year drains resources and energy.
A more sustainable solution must be found to eradicate the haze problem. And this will take a lot more time and effort.