Haze: Msia help fight Sumatera fires

KUALA LUMPUR: The Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) and the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) deployed assets to Palembang, Indonesia yesterday.

Malaysia is helping Indonesian authorities to battle widespread forest fires responsible for the choking haze affecting Malaysia and Singapore. 

The deployment comes after the Indonesian government had requested for assistance, specifically in the form of aircraft with the capability to put out fires over large areas. 

Defence Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein said his ministry sent a Bombardier CL415MP amphibious aircraft last night. He said the operation will be coordinated by both the RMAF and MMEA.

"I received a call from the Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak yesterday and he instructed me to coordinate assistance to put out forest fires in Indonesia. 

"This order came after the prime minister received a request from the Indonesian president Joko Widodo himself for Malaysia's assistance to battle the blaze in areas around Palembang, south of Sumatera. 

"For this mission, the government will be sending a Bombardier CL415MP aircraft, which will be deployed there by today," he told a press conference at the Defence Ministry in Jalan Padang Tembak, here yesterday. 

Hishammuddin said an inter-ministries and agencies meeting will also be held soon to discuss other forms of assistance that Malaysia can offer.

Separately, at a palm oil conference a scientist said governments cannot stop small farmers from using fire to clear land for the planting of cash crops but they can place preventive measures to stem the spread of underground peat fires.

"In rural areas of developing nations, 'no burn means no food'. Small farmers are not able to afford heavy machinery to clear land to plant padi, sweet potato or even sweet corn," said Param Agricultural Soil Surveys (M) Sdn Bhd managing director Dr S. Paramananthan.

In Sarawak, he highlighted that the state government allows for controlled burning within the fire barriers of water canals to ensure peat fires do not spread underground.

"I have been invited to meet with the Indonesian government to lay down practical solutions to prevent uncontrolled peat fires and polluting haze. I will be flying to Jakarta to meet with President Joko Widodo next week," he told Business Times at the sidelines of Malaysian Palm Oil Board's International Palm Oil Congress and Exhibition here.

Plantation Industries and Commodities Minister Datuk Amar Douglas Uggah Embas launched the book 'Soils of the lower and middle Baram River Basin' written by Param.

When asked what he would suggest to the Indonesian president, Param noted that Indonesia could map out underground water sources below peat areas. 

Just before the drought season, the government can pro-actively pump up water via tube wells to moisten the soil. This will prevent the spread of fire, should small cash crop farmers set fire on dry peat to clear land.

This is a more sustained solution than the current reactive measures of water-bombing and cloud seeding for rain, said the veteran soil hydrologist who has close to 50 years of experience in surveying peat areas in Malaysia and Indonesia.

"When there are accidental peat fires triggered by carelessly thrown away cigarette butts, firefighters can quickly pump up underground water from aquifers and channel it via trenches to the affected area.

"During the drought season, the unmanaged spongy peat becomes combustible and flammable. Fighting fire is challenging because it spreads and smoulders underground," he said. 

By investing in tube wells drilled into aquifers below the peat in coastal areas and putting in water-filled trenches to act as fire barriers, Param noted the Indonesian government can prevent recurrence of haze that killed many lives and racked up millions of dollars in medical bills.