Dense haze has forced the temporary shutdown of schools in Sumatra, Kalimantan, Malaysia, and Singapore. Tens of thousands of people on the two islands have suffered from diseases, such as respiratory problems, pneumonia, and eye irritation due to the haze.
The operations at airports in some provinces on those islands are almost paralyzed as flights are frequently hindered by the smog arising from wildfires that has reduced visibility up to 50 meters in the worst-hit areas.
The Indonesian government has taken utmost efforts and has deployed nearly three thousand military and police personnel to help put out the fires and impose legal enforcement against the perpetrators.
The Indonesian Police have so far named a total of 204 people as suspects in forest and plantation fire cases across the country.
However, El Nino-induced prolonged drought and strong winds have worsened the fires.
Malaysian Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein has fallen ill due to the haze, according to a post on this Twitter account.
"Jerebu masih teruk (Haze is still terrible) - I have already lost my voice, and my nose is blocked," he tweeted on Sunday (Sept. 27).
The Malaysian media reported that Hishammuddin also agreed that the haze situation should be discussed at the regional level as it appears to have become a yearly affair.
Straitstimes.com reported that Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak was concerned over the worsening haze situation in the country.
"I understand that the haze situation in certain states in Malaysia is at an unhealthy level. Reduce outdoor activities, if needed, use face mask," advised Najib, who was in News York, on his Twitter and Facebook on Sept. 27.
Malaysia's Education Ministry said in a statement on Sept 27 that schools in Selangor, Kuala Lumpur, Putrajaya, Negri Sembilan and several parts of Sarawak would be closed on Monday (Sept 28).
Meanwhile, Singapores elementary and high schools were shut down on Sept. 25 as the haze shrouding the city state had reached a hazardous level.
Singapores Environment Minister Vivian Balakrishnan noted in a statement at the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit 2015 on Sept. 27 that the issue of forest fires cannot be resolved unilaterally. The haze is affecting the health of millions of people, aircraft safety, and the regional economy.
"We need closer regional and international cooperation to apply legal and commercial pressure on errant companies to prevent them from profiting from unsustainable land and forest clearing," he said as quoted by Straitstimes.com.
Dr Balakrishnan linked the issue of haze to some of the UNs Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) of ensuring healthy lives and promoting well-being for all, as well as the sustainable management of forests and preventing land degradation and biodiversity loss.
He said forest and peatland fires in South-east Asia "impair the health of millions of people in the region, compromise the safety of aircraft and damage the regional economy". "The large quantities of carbon dioxide released set back global efforts to mitigate climate change," he added.
On Sept. 10, the National Environment Agency (NEA) said that Minister Vivian Balakrishnan conveyed Singapores deep concern over the deteriorating haze situation to Indonesian Minister of Environment and Forestry Siti Nurbaya Bakar, according to the Straitstimes.com.
He called for urgent action to be undertaken, including stricter action against the perpetrators.
The NEA also sent warning notices to four Indonesian companies, which were determined to cause the current haze pollution in Singapore.
From its investigations, haze-causing fires may have occurred on land concessions held by four Indonesian companies. The companies are: PT Rimba Hutani Mas, PT Sebangun Bumi Andalas Wood Industries, PT Bumi Sriwijaya Sentosa and PT Wachyuni Mandira.
In addition, NEA has served notice to Asia Pulp and Paper Company (APP), an Indonesian company with an office in Singapore, seeking information on its subsidiaries in Singapore and Indonesia, as well as measures taken by its suppliers in Indonesia to put out fires in their concessions, Channel News Asia reported.
The Singaporean media wrote that deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, Minister for Foreign Affairs K Shanmugam, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen and Dr Balakrishnan have all communicated directly with the Indonesian authorities on Sep 17, 18, 10, and 14 respectively.
A strong criticism came from Singapores Foreign and Law Minister K. Shanmugam, who expressed his discontent through a Facebook post on Sept. 24, while referring to the "shocking statements made by senior-level officials from Indonesia, with a complete disregard for our people, and their own - PSI levels in parts of Indonesia are at almost two thousand (PSI above 350 is considered hazardous in Indonesia)."
"How is it possible for senior officials in the government to issue such statements without any regard for their people, or ours, and without any sense of embarrassment, or a sense of responsibility?" wrote the Singaporean minister, without mentioning the name of the Indonesian senior official.
His criticism was responded by Indonesian Vice President M Jusuf Kalla, who was in New York for the UN General Assembly, on Sept. 27, saying that Indonesia has taken utmost efforts to put out the forest fires, but the problem could not be dealt with in a short period of time.
The Indonesian government is open to receiving assistance from any country, including Singapore, keen to help put out the forest fires, according to him.
"Please do, we are open. Singapore could participate and see personally. Singapore, please (come) if it wants to help, do not just talk," Kalla stated.
Indonesian Foreign Affairs Minister Retno Marsudi said she had communicated with her counterpart in Singapore to explain about the measures being taken by Indonesia.
"Indonesia is very serious about tackling the forest fires, including imposing legal enforcement and increasing public awareness," the minister added.
Indonesian Cabinet Secretary Pramono Anung, however, in Jakarta, on Sept. 28, said the country does not need help as of now from Singapore to overcome forest and land fires.
"We will first strive to overcome them (the fires) by ourselves. So far, there has not been any agreement with Singapore (about dealing with these fires)," he added.
Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar said there were certain technical constraints in accepting assistance from Singapore.
She said Singapore has offered a water bomber with a capacity of 5,000 liters while Indonesia has already used two to three water bombing units of a similar capacity.
"The BNPB has also prepared 17 water bombing planes with a capacity of 500 liters each," he said.
Singapore has offered to help with a C-130 aircraft to conduct cloud seeding operation and also a Chinooks helicopter to fight forest fires.
"It is used to transport a huge number of personnel and is good but according to the national police chief, it needs an extraordinarily amount of fuel," she said.
Singapore has also offered to send an assessment team and a planning team but Minister Siti said it would be difficult to coordinate with them.
"I cannot imagine it. We are working in five provinces of Riau, West Kalimantan, South Sumatra, Jambi and Central Kalimantan. Should we have to report to these teams? I have explained this to the President," she said.
With regard to the issue of haze, she said the Indonesian government has made it clear that any party, be it an individual or a company, violating the law will be blacklisted, their permits will be revoked and they will face legal action.
So far, legal action has been initiated against seven companies in connection with land fires and if new violations are found, similar action will be taken, she said.
The government has also been discussing a long-term solution to the problem, including encouraging the communities to change the tradition of burning forests for land clearing.
Referring to Minister Shanmugams criticism, Minister Nurbaya urged the government of Singapore to adopt a wiser and fairer approach to the ongoing forest fires.
"So, actually, what I want to say is that it should also have a fair outlook with regard to it (forest fire problem). The change (in the air pollution index in Singapore) is occurring hourly. It is frequently going up and down. What does it mean? It means that Indonesia has been making efforts (to extinguish the fires). We do not stay idle. Moreover, they said the government is shameless and irresponsible," the minister stated after speaking at a discussion on "Ecosystem management, hydrology and rehabilitation after peatland ecosystem fires".
In the meantime, Presidential Chief of Staff Teten Masduki has called on Singapore to understand the difficulties being faced by Indonesia in dealing with the current forest and land fires.
"This is not a simple task," he informed newsmen at the presidential palace compound on Sept. 28.
He pointed out that Singapore, on the other hand, had also enjoyed clean air for more than nine months from Sumatra.
"We know about several plantation and mining industries that stash their income from exports in Singapore," he affirmed.
He emphasized that Indonesia is not staying idle, but has continued to make efforts to fight the fires and imposed sanctions on those setting fires to forests or land that led to haze.(*)