Ian MacKenzie, Jakarta – Burning forest peat, too hot and thick to be put out by fire-fighting equipment alone, is now the major cause of choking smog spreading across Southeast Asia, diplomatic sources said on Friday.
"Peat is causing the majority of the smoke problem. It is causing the vast majority of the smoke," a Western source in contact with forestry experts said.
The sources said fire-fighting equipment without rain was useless against the huge quantities of peat underlying bush and rain forests in the affected areas.
Nearly 10,000 Indonesian and Malaysian firemen are fighting the blazes which have sparked a major health scare across the region.
Jakarta has declared a national disaster and Kuala Lumpur a state of emergency in Sarawak, a Malaysian state on Borneo island.
Many expatriates in Kuala Lumpur had left or were planning to leave, residents and diplomats said on Friday.
A World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) official, who has been monitoring satellite pictures, said on Thursday between 500,000 and 600,000 hectares (1.2 million and 1.5 million acres) of bush and forest had been burned or was burning, blanketing large tracts of Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and Indonesia in smog.
Agriculture Minister Syarifuddin Baharsyah told reporters on Friday he understood peat was on fire, especially in Riau province in Sumatra across the Malacca Straits from peninsular Malaysia and Singapore.
"If the peat is on fire, it is very difficult to extinguish because it is fire inside the ground," he said.
Other forestry and environmental sources have said burning peat and lignite coal in Sumatra and in Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo, could cause major ecological problems. The international president of the WWF, Syed Babar Ali, on Thursday described the situation as an "international catastrophe."
Agricultural and environmental sources said many of the fires had been started by plantation companies and small farmers using slash-and-burn techniques – a traditional if illegal practice – to clear land.
Baharsyah said there were 173 plantation areas reported to be on fire. "Most of them are palm oil and rubber plantations. I think it will affect palm oil and rubber output," he said.
He said his ministry suspected 14 plantation companies of setting fires for land clearance.
The fires have been aggravated by drought blamed on the El Nino phenomenon in the Pacific Ocean that affects global weather patterns.
Rains normally start in late August or early September, with the bulk of monsoon rain falling from October to April. This year, however, there has been only scattered rain.
Meteorologists warned Southeast Asian environment ministers at a recent meeting in Jakarta that drought could continue into next year.
Air quality in Singapore moved back to an unhealthy level on Friday morning after an overnight respite but was back in the moderate range in the early afternoon.
Military sources said the Indonesian air force and navy had been put on alert to help with cloud-seeding efforts to induce rain. Troops in the affected regions were said to be helping fight the fires, but there had been no general mobilisation so far.
The Indonesian Environment Forum (Walhi) accused the government of not showing commitment to deal with the crisis.
"There's no sign of the government's effort to ease the burden on the people. There is a scarcity of (surgical) masks everywhere," Walhi director Emmy Hafield told Reuters.
She said the price of masks had soared to 4,000 rupiah ($1.27) from 500 rupiah (16 cents).
"We believe that the government should announce this crisis an emergency. People in the villages do not have masks and they are already exhausted," she said.