South East Asia — Street traffic in Southeast Asian cities is thinning out and air traffic controllers are taking extra measures to ensure planes are well-spaced to account for the thick haze that has blanketed parts of the region, reaching hazardous levels over the past couple of days, but sea traffic in one of the worlds busiest waterways is proceeding without serious interruptions, at least so far.
The 805-kilometer Strait of Malacca, a channel that separates Indonesias Sumatra island and the Malay peninsula, is the shortest sea route between the Persian Gulf and Asian markets. Over 70,000 vessels a year ply the channel, carrying a third of global trade and almost half of worlds oil shipments.
Although authorities and industry officials worry that poor visibility raises the likelihood of accidents when the haze thickensan annual event in the area, mostly fed by smoke from fires that are deliberately set to clear land for oil-palm plantationsthey arent moving to enforce any systematic changes in how the traffic flows through the strait.
We have had no diversion of vessels due to the haze situation, said Peter Corfitsen, the Singapore-based Head of Asia Pacific Liner Operations Cluster, Maersk Line. We have encountered some occasional, short stoppages at terminals due to limited visibility for the quay crane operators, which has extended some of our vessel port stays, but it has not been significant.
That isnt to say there arent any precautions that can be taken
A drop in visibility below two nautical miles, around 3.7 kilometers, automatically triggers hazard warnings by port authorities. These include among others, tracking all inbound vessels and issuing specific navigational advisory to ships in the vicinity of a port and even a complete ban on small vessels in the area, said K. Subramaniam, assistant general manager at Malaysias Port Klang.
Although visibility sometimes dips to one nautical mile in the area during the June-September period when annual monsoon winds carry the smoke from fires on Sumatra to Singapore and Malaysia, that level hasnt been reached yet at Port Klang. Mr. Subramaniam said visibility is currently six miles, classified as clear.
Visibility at Singapores port is, well, unclear. A PSA Singapore Terminals spokesman told The Wall Street Journal Friday that he didnt immediately have any information on any warnings. On Thursday, the PSA said it was monitoring the situation closely, and was taking precautions with respect to workers health.
Although the sailors are trained to navigate through low visibility, the density of traffic raises the danger of contact in the narrow channel, said Daniel Tan, executive director at Singapore Shipping Association, a grouping of shipping companies in the city-state. At Phillips Channel, close to Singapore, the Strait of Malacca narrows to just 2.8 kilometers.
Accidents due to haze have been rare, as most vessels are equipped with sophisticated satellite-guided navigational devices.
In 2005, a container ship ran aground due to poor visibility when Malaysia declared a state of emergency in coastal areas of Port Klang and Kuala Selangor. In July 2009, shipping was halted near Indonesias Port of Damai, where visibility fell to less than 0.2 nautical miles.