by Azhar Sukri Information Source: Environmental News Network/Reuters
Hazardous thick smog triggered by forest fires in Indonesia blanketed parts of Sumatra today and reduced visibility in neighboring Malaysia. The pall, caused by deliberately set fires to clear land for plantations, raised fears of a return to the health crisis of 1997 when forest fire smoke covered several parts of Southeast Asia, triggering tourist cancellations by the thousands. Environmentalists and opposition groups criticized regional governments fornot having learnt their lesson and for not revealing more detailed informationabout the health risks. They also raised fears about the economic cost to the region, still recoveringfrom the 1997-1998 financial crisis. Air pollution levels in the worst hit areas of Indonesia’s Sumatra have risen toaround 400 points on the Air Pollution Standard index, well above thehazardous level of 300 points. Healthy air normally has a reading below 50 points. “Thick smog blankets the city in the mornings but usually clears after 9:00a.m.,” Ardhi Yusuf, an official at the Sumatra Environmental Supervising Body, told Reuters without elaborating. Many of the fires are centered deep in the north of Riau province, which isnear the border with North Sumatra and not far from Malaysia andSingapore. The main hot spots on Sumatra are quite far from key cities in Riau, resultingin little impact on the palm oil and crude oil industries. Riau is home to theIndonesian operations of oil giant Caltex. The 1997 fires caused thick smog over Malaysia and Singapore, andreached as far north as Thailand and the Philippines. But favorable winds have kept smoke away from Singapore this timearound. Thailand is also smog-free. In Malaysia, smog which blanketed the resort island of Penang over theweekend began to disperse on Monday, but health concerns remained,government officials said. “Visibility was one km (half a mile) last week. It’s improving now, butvisibility has yet to reach the normal eight to 10 kilometers (5 to 6 miles),” adepartment of environment official in Kuala Lumpur said. An official at the the Penang branch of the environment department said Malaysia’s Air Pollution Index showed unhealthy air in parts of Penang, but declined to give specific numbers. The official said the central state of Perak was also registering unhealthy airquality readings. A reading of between 0-15 is good, 51-100 moderate,101-200 unhealthy, and 201-300 very unhealthy. Environment Minister Law Hieng Ding said as of Saturday only three areas had reported readings of above 100, while the rest reported either good or moderate readings. No API numbers were given for Sunday or today. Law said the smog was temporary and there was no cause for alarm. The release of the API numbers marked a policy shift by the government, which since last year had banned reporting of the index, fearing its effect on tourism. Lim Li Lin, a researcher at Third World Network, a non-governmental organisation based in Penang, called on Malaysia to reveal more detailed figures. “There is a problem with having such general information. They need toreveal the specific API readings daily,” Lim said. Lim Kit Siang, chairman of the opposition Democratic Action Party, described Law’s assertion that the problem was temporary as shocking. “It is sheer folly for the government to pretend that it could mislead foreign tourists into believing that there is pure and clean air in the country,” Lim said. Indonesian plantations clearing land quickly and cheaply for new cropshave been blamed for the fires. “We went to some plantation areas near the border last week and found one palm plantation which had cleared an area of 2,470 acres,” ArdhiYusuf told Reuters. He said problems were compounded by some locals who were engaged in traditional slash and burn farming. Airport officials said so far there had not been any cancellation of incoming or outbound flights and there was no plan to temporarily close the airport. The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore are members, has proved largely powerless to deal with the smog issue for fear, observers say, of getting tough with regional heavyweight Jakarta.
(With additional reporting by Tomi Soetjipto in Jakarta and Chris Johnson in Bangkok)