Airports closed by low visibility have reopened in Indonesia and the air is cleaner over Singapore and Kuala Lumpur after rain doused forest fires spreading haze across the region, officials said on Friday.
It was not immediately clear however if the improvement was temporary or whether the haze could return after a few days.
Airports on Indonesia’s Sumatra island, where services were disrupted this week by the smoke from forest fires, reopened this week after the rain.
Sultan Thaha airport in Jambi province, which had been closed to flights since October 18, reopened on Thursday.
“Two airlines dared to land planes on Thursday and more can be served on Friday. Visibility around the runaway is clear…up to 10 000 metres,” said airport head Basuki Mardiyanto.
“It is all because of the rain two days ago. We hope the rain becomes routine,” he told Reuters by phone from Jambi, 630 km northwest of Jakarta.
Authorities briefly closed another airport in Sumatra – Palembang city’s Sultan Mahmud Badaruddin – on Monday due to poor visibility. It was fully operational on Friday although delays were still common.
The haze piled extra misery on travellers during a peak Muslim holiday period when Indonesians returned to their home towns and villages for Eid al-Fitr festivities marking the end of the fasting month of Ramadan.
There was sporadic rain over parts of Sumatra early in the week, but the showers picked up on Wednesday and Thursday, officials said.
If rains are not sustained they can actually cause more smoke on burning land, particularly peat areas, where fires are notoriously difficult to douse.
The fires have been raging for weeks, spreading smoke across much of Southeast Asia and triggering fears of a repeat of the environmental disaster in 1997-98 when dry conditions linked to the El Nino weather pattern caused a choking haze that cost the region billions of dollars in economic losses.
Indonesia’s neighbours have grown increasingly frustrated over the fires, most of which are deliberately lit by farmers or by timber and palm oil plantation owners to clear land for cultivation.
But the air has been markedly clearer in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur over the past few days after weeks of haze.
In Singapore, the pollution index was at 19 at 1pm local time, down from Thursday’s reading of 38.
The pollution index hit a high of 128 on October 7, its worst level in nearly a decade. A reading of above 100 is considered unhealthy.
In Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, the Air Pollution Index reading stood at 24 on Thursday, down from 72 on Tuesday, according to local media.
Although air pollution has also improved in Indonesia, a white veil of haze was still visible above Palembang where many residents found facemasks of little help.
“Even if I have a new mask every day, it doesn’t help. I have to cover my face with a shirt. Even that can only last for an hour. After that I have to take a rest to catch my breath and soak my face,” said street sweeper Mohammad Soleh.
(Additional reporting by Achmad Sukarsono in Jakarta, Sebastian Tong in Singapore and Liau Y-Sing and Hsu Chuang Khoo in Kuala Lumpur).