Smog gets in their eyes and lungs

Copyright: Paul Lowe / Panos

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  • Heavy haze from forest fires lifts pollution to 20 times beyond safe levels
  • Dust particles from the forest fires send people streaming to health centres
  • Fires are triggered by the clearing of vast tracts of land for palm oil plantations

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Days of heavy smog shrouding Indonesian Borneo pushed its air pollution to 20 times beyond the safe level last week despite government promises to tackle forest fires.

Visibility dropped dramatically as measures of dust particles known as PM10 reached almost 3,000 micrograms per cubic metre in the Central Borneo provincial capital of Palangka Raya. According to government guidelines, the maximum healthy exposure is 150 micrograms per cubic metre.

Many people were reported to be suffering from eye and respiratory problems caused by dust particles from forest and plantation fires deliberately set to clear lands for oil palm plantations in the neighbouring Pulang Pisau and Kapuas regencies. The sick are clogging health centres in the city such as the Dr. Doris Sylvanus General Hospital. The pollution also forced schools to suspend classes.

Officials at the health ministry said that heavy pollution in Palangka Raya can have serious impacts on its people, especially those already suffering from lung diseases.

"The pollution can aggravate chronic bronchitis and cause asthma attacks because it will block upper respiratory passages, making breathing difficult," said M. Subuh, director general for disease control and environmental health.

He added that newborns, pregnant women, children under five years old, and people with a history of lung disease would be much better off moving to locations with cleaner air.

Low visibility caused by thick haze is also making driving and traveling dangerous. The haze has shut down Tjilik Riwut Airport, Central Kalimantan's largest airport, as visibility plunged to 50 metres, way below the minimum 700 metres required.

For too long now, the disaster has been recurring in similar patterns each year. The Indonesian government has so far failed to go beyond rhetoric to curb the crisis. Vast tracts of lands continue to be cleared for plantations, stoking fires that discharge large amounts of pollutants in the atmosphere.

The fate of people as well as wildlife depends on better law enforcement, improvement in local government bureaucracies and enhanced corporate responsibility. But it begs the question, is the current Indonesian government have such competency?

This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's South-East Asia & Pacific desk.