As Indonesia prepares for the 2018 Asian Games, Riau is gearing up to mitigate the risk of forest fires and haze that could disrupt the quadrennial sport festival.
The province declared an alert status for land and forest fires on Monday, after three of its 12 regencies and cities — Indragiri Hilir, Pelalawan and Bengkalis — announced a similar status earlier this month amid mounting reports of wildfires.
While Riau itself will not play host to the Asian Games scheduled to be held from Aug. 18 to Sept. 2, it lies close to the province of South Sumatra, where some of the sporting events will take place in the capital of Palembang.
Riau is prone to forest and peatland fires that could spread haze to adjacent regions.
“The Riau administration doesn’t want to be outmaneuvered [in a way] that might cause the haze disaster from recurring,” Riau acting governor Wan Thamrin Hasyim said on Monday.
“Thus, declaring the status as early as possible allows us to set up a task force to ensure a better coordinated strategy in both preventing and mitigating fires.”
Riau has recorded more than 540 hectares of land burned so far this year. Some of these areas are open-access production forest, while others are owned by private plantation companies.
The Riau Disaster Mitigation Agency (BPBD) has recorded at least 59 hotspots in nine of Riau’s 12 regencies and municipalities since the beginning of 2018. With 20 hotspots detected, Pelalawan was the most affected regency.
Thamrin’s concern echoes concern expressed by President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, who earlier this month instructed early land and forest fire prevention measures and ordered all stakeholders to ensure South Sumatra, along with the nearby provinces of Riau and Jambi, remain free from forest fires during the Asian Games.
“The President clearly doesn’t want the sport festival to be disrupted by haze,” BPBD head Edwar Sanger said.
Following the alert status announcement, Riau’s forest fire task force readied more than 1,000 personnel in cities and regencies across the province and distributed pamphlets warning residents not to clear land with slash-and-burn practices, Edwar said.
The provincial administration also plans to ask the National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) to deploy a helicopter to patrol the region.
Meanwhile, the Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG) in Pekanbaru reported on Monday morning that the number of hotspots had decreased to five, thanks to rainfall in several regions.
However, BMKG Pekanbaru head Sukisno said the number of hotspots would fluctuate in the dry season, which is expected to last from June to October.
Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar asserted the government’s readiness to tackle wildfires this year, noting that agencies had predicted that the number of hotspots would be smaller than in 2015.
Forest and peatland fires devastated large swaths of land in 2015, including in Riau, and produced choking haze that led to several deaths and prompted the closure of airports. The smoke spread to neighboring countries, particularly Malaysia and Singapore.
“What is important is alertness and leadership at every level of administration. There are also preventive measures carried out by the Coordinating Economic Minister in managing peatlands, as well as in educating citizens not to free up land by burning it,” Siti said.