'Dangerous' air pollution in Indonesia's Borneo leads to school closures

PALANGKA RAYA, Indonesia (Reuters) - Schools in two cities in the Indonesian part of Borneo island will be closed for a week after smoke from forest fires caused air quality to hit “dangerous” levels, a local government official said on Sunday.

Motorists ride their motorbikes through haze due to a forest fire in Palangka Raya, Central Kalimantan province, Indonesia, September 15, 2019. REUTERS/Willy Kurniawan

Indonesia and neighboring countries in Southeast Asia are regularly hit by smoke from slash-and-burn clearances of forests for farms and palm oil plantations, but conditions this year have been the worst since 2015 due to an El Nino weather pattern causing an extended dry spell.

The air pollution index in Palangka Raya, the capital of Borneo’s Central Kalimantan province, hit 500, or “dangerous”, on Sunday, data from Indonesia’s Environment and Forestry Ministry showed. Any reading above 100 is considered “unhealthy”.

An official said on Sunday that schools in Palangka Raya and another city, Sampit, would be shut next week, in line with instructions circulated by Central Kalimantan’s governor on Friday.

“From our observation, the smoke is very thick in Palangka Raya and Sampit,” Slamet Winaryo, the head of Central Kalimantan’s education agency, said by telephone.

“We have decided to give one week off from Monday to Saturday for the students in both locations,” he said. He did not say how many pupils or schools would be affected.

Winaryo said other schools in Central Kalimantan would start half an hour later, at 0730 local time. Schools have also been advised to cut the duration for each class into 30-minute periods.

Indonesia’s environment minister said on Friday some forest fires in its territory had started on land used by subsidiaries of Malaysian companies, as the neighbors traded blame for blazes that have spread haze across the region.

A Reuters photographer in Palangka Raya said visibility was down to around 50 meters.

Air Visual - an independent online air quality index (AQI) monitor - showed the city’s air quality has been “hazardous” since Friday.

Indonesian authorities have urged Central Kalimantan residents to refrain from outdoor activities or to wear a mask due to the severe pollution.

“There are many hotspots in Kalimantan, those are high category hotspots,” Agus Wibowo, the country’s disaster mitigation agency (BNPB) spokesman, said by text message.

The agency has deployed eight helicopters and 1,512 personnel to extinguish fire across 44,769 hectares of land in Central Kalimantan since May.

Meanwhile, schools in West Kalimantan, which were closed due to deteriorating air condition from September 12 to September 14, will reopen on Monday.

Reporting by Willy Kurniawan and Tabita Diela in Jakarta; Editing by Ed Davies and Jan Harvey