President Joko Widodo inspects a peatland clearing that was engulfed by fire in Kalimantan during September. (AFP Photo/Romeo Gacad)

Government Admits to Underestimating Impact of El Niño


OCTOBER 28, 2015

Jakarta. The Indonesian government admits to having underestimated the devastating effects of this year's El Niño weather phenomenon, as forest fires intensify and spread on Sumatra and Kalimantan islands amid an unusually harsh dry season.

In March, the Indonesian government predicted that El Niño would hit the country hard, but it had no idea that the aftermath would be of this gravity, said Luhut Pandjaitan, the chief security minister.

For more than two months, raging forest fires in Sumatra have released toxic haze that has spread across neighboring countries including Malaysia, Singapore, southern Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and the Philippines.

El Niño typically ushers in hot and dry weather for Indonesia, leading to droughts and rising temperatures, causing forest fires, typically set by farmers to clear land, to spread easily.

Fires in Indonesia have been a near annual occurrence, but have been made worse by a prolonged dry season and El Niño weather pattern whose devastating effects are only now starting to be seen.

"We did not expect that El Niño would be even worse than the one we had back in 1997," Luhut said in Jakarta on Wednesday. "Usually in September, rains start to pour down, but not this time. We have made wrong predictions."

The oversight has forced officials to become more transparent in their disaster management efforts, and work closely with the National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) and regional administrations.

Some of these measures include identifying the forest fire hot spots on a digital map, available to download for free online, according to BNPB spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho.

Social Affairs Minister Khofifah Indar Parawansa, with the help of Arsyadjuliandi Rachman, the acting governor of Sumatra's Riau province, has also pledged to broadcast via radio readings of the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) every half-hour through state-owned Radio Republik Indonesia (RRI).

“When the haze gets thicker and yellow in color, [local governments have been instructed to] inform the RRI. All local governments must listen to the broadcast and use the [PSI] information as reference for evacuating people [if necessary],” Khofifah said on Wednesday.

President Joko Widodo has decided to cut short his first official visit to the United States on Monday as the forest fire crisis blazes out of control in Indonesia.