Thursday Jun 24 2004

Malaysia fears unhealthy summer of smog
from Sumatran wildfires

By John Burton in Singapore and Shawn Donnan in Jakarta

Malaysia is worried that the haze caused this week by wildfires from the nearby Indonesian island of Sumatra may be a prelude to a smoggy summer that would pose health hazards.
Satellite images showed that blazes on Sumatra were spreading yesterday, with 400 "hot spots" of forest fires that have been lit by farmers and plantation owners seeking to clear brush.
Commercial flights into the Sumatran city of Pekanbaru have been disrupted several times this week because of poor visibility from the thick smoke, with some residents complaining of respiratory problems.
Malaysia was considering closing schools and banning outdoor activities for children in areas badly affected by the haze. At least five towns in the Klang Valley around Kuala Lumpur have reported "unhealthy" air quality, with the city's landmark Petronas Twin Towers barely visible at 3km distance.
Officials fear a repeat of what happened in 1997-98 when bush fires on Sumatra and the Indonesian part of Borneo burned out of control, destroying 25m acres of land and covering Singapore and parts of Malaysia and Indonesia with thick smoke that caused an estimated US$9.3bn (7.7bn, 5.1bn) in economic losses, such as reduced tourism.
The environmental disaster provoked a diplomatic dispute and led to an agreement in 2002 to fight pollution from forest fires. But corruption, lax law enforcement and lack of funds have hampered efforts to stop the practice.
"There is no strong enforcement of the law against companies who set forest fires. The haze problem will be an annual one until that happens," said Muhammad Teguh Surya of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment.
Although rain and wind may cause the haze to disperse temporarily, weather forecasters warn that the problem may last until heavy rains come in October. The region is now in what is called the inter-monsoon season, one of the driest periods of the year.
The fires are an annual occurrence in Indonesia once the rainy season ends in March as farmers engage in illegal efforts to clear land for planting. The worst haze is in July and August when dense jungle areas are dry enough to be burned.
Indonesia said more than 1,000 people were fighting the fires.

Parent site: "Focus on Malaysia"