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Fires Spark Ecological Emergency Blazes May Take A Year To Put Out; Aftereffects May Last Much Longer

Thu., Oct. 2, 1997

The fires burning the grasslands and rain forests of Indonesia’s Sumatra and Borneo islands, among the world’s last virgin habitats, threaten Southeast Asia with ecological disaster, U.N. climatologists said this week.

The weather experts predicted that it might take until next year to extinguish the manmade infernos whose smoke has partially smothered five nations.

The magnitude of the tragedy was revealed as U.N. experts gathered in Jakarta to coordinate international firefighting efforts. They warned that even if the forest fires can be controlled soon, the aftereffects of the pollution have already caused “a large environmental emergency” that could last for years.

“The long-term effects are in health, economic, social and ecological areas,” said Ravi Rajan, the chief U.N. representative.

The fires and the spreading haze have caused billions of dollars in damage to crops and lost labor in one of the world’s fastest-growing and most populous regions. The blazes and pollution are also a blow to regional economies already battered by fiscal woes.

While the fires continued to burn, rains brought some relief this week for millions of people who tossed away their face masks, went back to work or school, danced in the streets and hailed a glowing sun that had been obscured for weeks behind the veil of yellowish haze.

The temporary relief followed a week in which visibility was down to 50 feet in some cities. The haze contributed to an airline crash on Sumatra last weekend, killing all 234 people aboard. In two separate collisions last week two freighters sank in the Malacca Strait, where the haze had reduced visibility to near zero. Twenty-seven crewmen are still missing.

For the moment, Indonesia and Malaysia have lifted a state of emergency in several cities whose inhabitants had spent 10 days living indoors.

With an estimated 1.2 million to 1.4 million acres of forest and bush still burning out of control, Lars Olsson of the U.N.’s World Meteorological Organization warned: “We do not think the rains we have seen over the last 24 hours will be enough. There is no indication that this is the end of the drought in Indonesia.”

At the same time, Indonesian forest experts have revealed that scores of peat and coal fires have been simmering below the surface of the islands “for years and years” with scant hope that conventional firefighting methods can snuff them out soon.

Regional meteorologists concur with Olsson that the smog will come back once the winds die down and the rains stops. Some predict that the bulk of the fires will not go out until next April when the next major monsoon rains are due.

In the meantime, the smog could drift further into Asia, and the World Health Organization said thousands could suffer permanent health damage and many might die or suffer ill effects leading to cancer.

“When you have these levels of pollutants in the air, there are increases in acute respiratory ailments, including pneumonia and asthma,” said the health agency’s Robert Kim Farley. “There are also long-term effects from carcinogens which will be known 20 to 30 years down the line.”

Officials also were investigating a possible link between the fires and respiratory ailments affecting 112 children in the southern Philippines.

Health Secretary Carmencita Reodica said she had ordered officials on Palawan island and in Zamboanga City on Mindanao island to find out if the sudden rise in lung ailments was caused by the smog.

Although Southeast Asian governments are playing down the pollution in order not to scare their residents, an editorial in Singapore’s influential Straits Times Tuesday lashed out at neighboring Jakarta, saying it had been complacent in dealing with the thousands of fires that have burned since July, lit by farmers and agriculture companies who want to clear land for cash crops.

“The patience of Singaporeans and Malaysians is wearing thin,” the paper said. “The cost of the haze is getting unacceptably high and it will get higher if not enough Indonesian officials act urgently, decisively.”

Indonesia’s President Suharto has apologized to his neighbors for smothering them with smoke. His government blames the absence of rain for the disaster.

Slash-and-burn is a land-clearing method used by migratory farmers for generations. First trees are felled, then the undergrowth and what is left are burned. Next the farmers plant crops for one, two or three harvests before the soil becomes impoverished and they move on.

“It’s the only way poor farmers can clear land. But the farmers burn only one acre at a time; each of the 174 companies in Sumatra and Kalimantan (Borneo) burn at least 1,000 acres each year,” said Emy Hafild of the Indonesian Environment Forum.

Each year the forest, sheltering some of the world’s richest fauna and flora, has shrunk. This year the effects of El Nino - a warming of the southern Pacific Ocean that can play havoc with the weather worldwide - caused droughts in Indonesia and many parts of Asia.

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