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Jokowi focuses on El Niño as Indonesia’s dry season heats up

Smoke billows from a peatland planted with oil palms in Indonesia's Riau province in 2015. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

  • Indonesian President Joko Widodo warned officials to anticipate risks from the first El Niño since the 2015 Southeast Asia wildfires crisis.
  • Dry season conditions had emerged in 52% of Indonesian territory by early July, according to the country’s weather forecaster.
  • Officials hope reforms enacted since the 2015 disaster will lessen the severity of wildfires as El Niño conditions become more pronounced.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo has warned of potentially dangerous weather conditions accelerating across the archipelago in the coming months, as the nation’s meteorology agency says more than half the country has entered the dry season.

“Anticipate the potential for a long dry season due to El Niño,” the president, known as Jokowi, told ministers at a cabinet meeting in Jakarta on July 3.

Agencies across Indonesia are allocating resources and shifting policy to confront the risks posed by the emergence of the first El Niño since the Southeast Asian country’s 2015 haze crisis. That year, El Niño-driven warming of Pacific Ocean waters caused a cascade of climatic effects, which in Indonesia meant a prolonged main dry season beyond October. The dearth of rain strengthened the annual wildfires, which burned 4.6 million hectares (11.4 million acres) of land across the archipelago.

Data from Indonesia’s Meteorology, Climate and Geophysics Agency (BMKG) showed a total of 186 medium-risk hotspots across the country on July 2. The eastern regions of Papua and Maluku accounted for the largest share, with 62 hotspots, while the agency detected 38 hotspots across Sumatra and Kalimantan, the Indonesian portion of the island of Borneo.

By comparison, on July 30, 2015, the last El Niño year, the BMKG recorded 186 hotspots just in Riau, a province in Sumatra home to Indonesia’s largest expanse of carbon-heavy peatland.

In 2015, the city of Palangkaraya, the capital of Central Kalimantan province, experienced some of the worst air quality recorded in Indonesia as nearby peat fires burned for months. Conditions on the ground have yet to reach the same level of severity — over the first weekend of July, torrential rain fell on the city and high winds knocked down trees.

A woman in Palangkaraya displays a sign asking President Jokowi to evacuate residents from the haze-hit region in 2015, when much of Indonesia was submerged in toxic smoke from out-of-control wildfires and underground hotspots as a result of unchecked land clearing for agriculture and the year’s extended dry season due to El Niño. Photo courtesy of the @twt_marathon Twitter account.

The most recent update by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) indicates a 70-80% likelihood of El Niño conditions emerging between July and October this year. On June 8, the Climate Prediction Center at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced that El Niño conditions had arrived and would strengthen in the coming months.

In May, the WMO said there was a 98% chance of at least one of the next five years registering the hottest temperature since records began. Indonesia’s BMKG said it expected El Niño to cause severe droughts across the country, which could impact irrigation and households access to groundwater.

The threats posed by El Niño have been deliberated in high-level government meetings since the beginning of the year. In February, Jokowi reiterated calls that regional police chiefs who failed to prevent fires would be sacked.

President Joko Widodo addresses ministers at a cabinet meeting on July 3. Image courtesy of the State Secretariat of Indoneisa.

“The anticipation is that we have prepared better infrastructure than in previous years,” Suharyanto, the head of Indonesia’s disaster management agency (BNPB), said as quoted by state newswire Antara.

However, some civil society researchers say that while the government has demonstrated success in raising capacity to both prevent and extinguish some fires, progress in rewetting the peatlands where fires are most damaging had fallen short since the 2015 crisis.

“The basic root cause of these fires regarding peat restoration and protection of peat has a lot of holes, because the supervision and control over land management hasn’t been optimal,” said Riko Kurniawan, who runs the Riau office of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), an environmental pressure group.

Read more: Australia bushfires may have caused global climate phenomenon La Niña: Study

Since wildfire crises following the 2015 El Niño and a positive Indian Ocean dipole in 2019, regional police departments have cracked down on small farmers using fire to clear vegetation and prepare land for planting, a primary accelerant of wildfires. Billboards warning farmers of criminal penalties for burning are a common site in some districts.

Separately, the government has sought to improve capacity to deal swiftly with emerging fires by raising the number of community volunteer firefighters to 11,000, according to Indonesia’s Ministry of Environment and Forestry.

“Hopefully with the early preparation concerning personnel and infrastructure the worst of 2015 and 2019 will not happen in 2023,” Suharyanto said.

With El Niño likely, Indonesia’s volunteer firefighters gear up — with new gear

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Banner: Smoke billows from a peatland planted with oil palms in Indonesia’s Riau province in 2015. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

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