Haze Worsens Across Southeast Asia

BenarNews Staff

2015-10-05
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151005-ID-haze-1000 Indonesian motorists navigate beneath a thick haze in Palembang, Sumatra, Sept. 30, 2015.
AFP

Indonesia’s Southeast Asian neighbors are reeling from worsening air pollution emanating from illegal agricultural fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan.

In the past few days, a blanket of smog has forced schools closings across peninsular Malaysia, hospitalized dozens of people in southern Thailand, and led to the cancellation of international sporting events in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.

On Monday, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak called on the Indonesian government to take action against palm oil companies and other agricultural firms that start such fires to clear land.

“They are operating there. We want Indonesia to take action. Summonsing is one thing. But proving they conducted such acts is another,” the state-run Bernama news agency quoted the prime minister as saying from Milan, Italy.

Scientists at the U.S. space agency NASA are warning that this year’s forest fires and resulting haze – an annual occurrence – could be “among the most severe events on record” because unusually warm ocean temperatures in the Equatorial Pacific – the El Niño phenomenon – are lengthening the dry season and reducing rainfall.

“If the forecasts for a longer dry season hold, this suggests 2015 will rank among the most severe events on record,” said Robert Field, a Columbia University scientist based at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

“Conditions in Singapore and southeastern Sumatra are tracking close to 1997, with some stations having visibility less than 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) on average for a week. In Kalimantan, there have been reports of visibility less than 50 meters (165 feet),” he said.

‘Irresponsible and greedy’

Due to the dirty air, 7,000 schools were ordered closed Monday and Tuesday across much of Malaysia, the Associated Press reported. A set of religious school exams scheduled for Monday and Tuesday were postponed, affecting more than 700,000 students, Bernama reported.

Average Malaysians are fuming about the situation.

“For the past decade or more, Malaysians have been robbed of our right to fresh clean air … due to the actions or inactions of our neighboring country, which do not fall short of being irresponsible and greedy,” Jummana Saifuddin, a resident of Subang Jaya in Selangor state, wrote in a letter to the New Straits Times last month.

“Irresponsible, because it very well knows the hazard caused to others living in this region, and greedy, because there is an alternative to burning old crops and trees/plants for land clearance, but such options are not taken because of profit, their own profit,” she added.

The bad air forced the cancellation on Sunday of the Standard Chartered KL Marathon in Malaysia’s capital, as well as the scrubbing of the final 15 races of the Swimming World Cup in Singapore on Saturday, according to news reports.

Singaporean consumer and environmental advocacy groups called Monday for a boycott of “irresponsible” companies that were contributing to regional air pollution, Agence France-Presse reported.

The blanket of dirty air, propelled by monsoon winds, has even traveled as far away as Cebu island in the central Philippines, meteorological officials there said.

“We suspect that this haze is from Sumatra. It is unusually thick,” Philippine weather forecaster Romeo Aguirre told Agence France-Press on Saturday.

Hard to breathe

North of Malaysia, the haze reached hazardous levels in southern Thailand on Monday. Haze and poor visibility were reported in five provinces: Narathiwat, Pattani, Songkhla, Satun and Yala.

The air pollution was making it difficult for people to breathe, Pattani Gov. Weerapong Kaewsuwan said.

"We are concerned about people’s health,” he said.

Betong district in Yala was badly affected.

"The smoke from forest fires in Sumatra, Indonesia is still spreading and has covered Betong for a while, has particularly affected children and elders and patients with respiratory diseases. The patients admitted at Betong hospital, Yala province have risen to 160 people,” said Wongwit Akarawarothai, a district health official.

‘All this takes time’

In Indonesia, the government has dispatched more than 20,000 troops and other personnel to contain the agricultural fires, AFP reported.

The news agency quoted the office of Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo as saying that his government was “very serious in tackling the forest fires,” but that the El Niño phenomenon was complicating matters.

Companies found responsible for starting agricultural fires could have their business licenses pulled, according to presidential spokesman Ari Dwipayana, but “all this takes time,” AFP quoted him as saying.

Rapee Mama and Nasueroh contributed to the report.

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