Indonesian firefighters try to contain a blaze in South Kalimantan earlier this month. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.
The death toll from the heavy haze blanketing parts of Indonesia has climbed to 19, a minister has announced, almost double the previous figure as the crisis from widespread forest fires worsens.
For almost two months, countless fires caused by slash-and-burn agriculture in Indonesia have choked vast expanses of the populous region, forcing schools to close and scores of flights and major events to be cancelled.
An estimated 500,000 people have suffered respiratory problems since the fires started in July.
Jakarta previously stated that the fires had killed 10 people, some of whom died while fighting the flames and others from the thick smoke.
But the country’s social minister confirmed on Wednesday that the death toll had reached 19 reported deaths.
“As of this morning, there are 19 people who have died from the effects of haze,” Khofifah Indar Parawansa told a press conference in Jakarta.
The victims were all from Sumatra and Kalimantan – Indonesia’s part of Borneo – where farmers wanting to quickly and cheaply clear land, reportedly lit the fires themselves.
President Joko Widodo plans to tour the worst-hit regions later this week, having cut short his visit to California to deal with the crisis.
Three Indonesian naval warships are apparently on standby near the coast of Kalimantan in case a large-scale evacuation is needed, with temporary shelters being built to house those fleeing the acrid smoke.
Observers warn the outbreak of breathing problems could become the worst ever recorded in Indonesia, exacerbated by bone-dry conditions caused by El Nino weather phenomenon.
Indonesia’s security minister Luhut Panjaitan said the archipelago’s weather agency had failed to predict this year’s El Nino would be more severe than that of 1997, when fires sent pollution soaring to new highs in an unprecedented ecological disaster.