Malaysia: Sumatra forest fires bring back haze over parts of Malaysia

Sumatra forest fires bring back haze over parts of Malaysia

(Source: The Strait Times Interactive, June22, 2004)

By Reme Ahmad

KUALA LUMPUR – The haze is back with a vengeance. Visibility was cut by half in some places along the west coast of peninsular Malaysia yesterday, with air quality hitting the ‘unhealthy’ level in Penang.

Although it is usual for the Malaysian skies to be clouded by haze around this time of the year because of forest fires in Sumatra and the use of slash-and-burn techniques for clearing land for plantations, officials believe this is the worst in a year.

A combination of weather and wind patterns were responsible, they said.

‘The south-western monsoon winds blow from Sumatra to our side and the fair weather can make things worse over the next three days,’ a Malaysian Meteorological Service official told The Straits Times.

The skies turned decidedly grey in Kuala Lumpur by late afternoon yesterday as the smog from Sumatra crept in. The worst hit were Penang and three other districts.

The Department of Environment said Penang island, Seberang Prai on mainland Penang, Manjung in Perak and Sungei Petani in Kedah hit the ‘unhealthy’ level on the Air Pollutant Index (API).

The department also said in a statement that there were 80 ‘hot spots’, or burning areas, on Sumatra on Sunday, compared to 312 on Saturday and 261 last Tuesday.

‘The worst is Penang, especially on the mainland, with the index at an unhealthy level due to a lot of pollutants in the air,’ a department official said.

Penang residents such as student Wati Abu Bakar were inconvenienced.

The haze had slowed down her early morning motorcycle rides to school in the past few days, she complained.

‘It’s not that bad that I have to wear a mask, but it has become very foggy in the mornings suddenly,’ said the 19-year-old who lives just outside Butterworth.

The air quality in western Selangor, Kedah and parts of Perak were described as ‘moderate’ under the API measurement of the department.

The ‘unhealthy’ reading in Penang is a notch above ‘moderate’ but below the ‘very unhealthy’ and ‘dangerous’ levels.

The API measures the quality of air on a scale of zero to 300.

It considers zero to 50 as good, 51 to 100 as moderate, 101 to 200 as unhealthy and 201 to 300 as very unhealthy. Anything above 300 is hazardous.

The Meteorological Service official said general visibility in Selangor dropped to 6km by around 2pm from more than 10km on haze-free days. The visibility in Penang dropped to between 4km and 5km.

Singapore’s National Environment Agency said last week that its Pollutant Standards Index hit 63 last Wednesday – the highest it has reached so far this year.

But it said the spike in readings did not signal a full-blown return of the haze.

The region was hit by its worst choking haze in 1997 and 1998, which cost regional economies US$9 billion (S$15.5 billion) in damages to farming, transport and tourism.


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