03/18/2014, 00.00
INDONESIA
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Sumatra on fire: thousands intoxicated, smog affects Malaysia and Singapore

by Mathias Hariyadi
Schools closed, citizens barricaded in their homes, thousands of people with respiratory problems. Farmers and unscrupulous businesses behind hundreds of deliberately set fires. President Yudhoyono blames local governments. Appeals for prayer for the end of the emergency.

Jakarta (AsiaNews) - Schools closed, citizens requested to remain in their homes and use air conditioners, at least 51 thousand people struggling with severe respiratory problems due to hazardous air quality. The province of Riau (Sumatra island, an area rich in oil and fuel) is now in is the middle of an environmental emergency, caused by a thick blanket of smog and smoke that has led to the closure of major airports. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his staff have reached Pekanbaru, the provincial capital, to closely monitor the situation and to try to appease the anger of thousands of infuriated citizens.

The head of States' attention was drawn by the complaint of a primary school child who posted a dramatic account of the situation on major social networks. The emergency is caused by the widespread practice of many farmers and unscrupulous entrepreneurs, who set fire to large tracts of land in order to clear it for cultivation. There are also stories of corruption and bribery, involving large farmers and local authorities, who are indifferent to or even involved in the abuse.

The health and environmental emergency in Riau has reached alarming proportions, so much so that President Yudhoyono - infuriated with the local authorities for their mismanagement of the crisis - rushed to the area. Undoubtedly, his decision was also influenced by the April parliamentary elections and the presidential elections in July. However the president's purely political move also ensured the deployment of hundreds of police and military to deal with the emergency.

The smog alert has also involved other nations in the region, particularly Malaysia and Singapore who have joined the protests of thousands of Indonesian citizens exasperated by the situation. Many are launching calls for "Prayers for Riau". Outbreaks of fire are visible in many parts of the Indonesian archipelago: 243 only in the province of Riau, 74 in the province of North Sumatra , 40 in West Sumatra and 75 in the province of Aceh.

Pollution levels have touched 449 of the Pollutant Standard Index, that is "particularly harmful" to humans. The closure of schools is worrying students struggling with their final exams.  An already critical situation is further aggravated by the continuing drought of the dry season:  fire crews are struggling to contain the various fires and in the coming hours could "bomb" the fires from aircraft and helicopters.

 

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