Forest fires in Indonesia (PHOTO)

Forest fires in Indonesia (PHOTO)Weeks of acrid haze have caused flight delays, school closures in Malaysia and respiratory problems for thousands.

The illegal burning of forests and agricultural land across Indonesia has blanketed much of south-east Asia in an acrid haze, leading to one of the most severe regional shutdowns in years.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said Indonesia needs to convict plantation companies for the noxious smoke, created by the annual destruction of plants during the dry season. Burning the land is a quick way to ready the soil for new seed.

“We want Indonesia to take action,” he was quoted as saying by the state news agency Bernama, adding the smog was affecting the economy. “Indonesia alone can gather evidence and convict the companies concerned.”

In Singapore, races for the swimming world cup – the FINA World Championship – were cancelled on Saturday. A marathon in Malaysia on Sunday was also abandoned and all schools were closed on Monday and Tuesday.

Tens of thousands of people in Indonesia and Malaysia have sought medical treatment for respiratory problems. The annual burning is decades old and Indonesia has faced mounting pressure to end the practice.

Scientists say the pollution could surpass 1997 levels when the haze created an environmental disaster that cost an estimated US$9 billion in damage.

“If the forecasts for a longer dry season hold, this suggests 2015 will rank among the most severe events on record,” said Robert Field, a Columbia University scientist based at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

In Singapore, news websites post near-hourly updates on the danger of being outside. Some shops were providing free masks for children and elderly people.

The National Environment Agency in Singapore said Monday’s haze will enter the “unhealthy range”.

“Healthy persons should reduce prolonged or strenuous outdoor physical exertion ... Persons who are not feeling well, especially the elderly and children, and those with chronic heart or lung conditions, should seek medical attention,” it said.

Following a public outcry, ten Singaporean companies that manufacture paper products announced on Monday they do not source wood from five firms in Indonesia suspected of contributing to the haze.

Greenpeace says the fires, mostly from peatland, kill roughly 110,000 people a year in the region through associated conditions.

Indonesia has deployed 20,000 security forces police to water bomb the fields and use chemicals to artificially induce rainfall. It also says it has investigated companies and ordered four to suspend operations.

Forest fires in Indonesia (PHOTO)
Forest fires in Indonesia (PHOTO)
Forest fires in Indonesia (PHOTO)
Forest fires in Indonesia (PHOTO)
Forest fires in Indonesia (PHOTO)
Forest fires in Indonesia (PHOTO)
Forest fires in Indonesia (PHOTO)
Forest fires in Indonesia (PHOTO)
Forest fires in Indonesia (PHOTO)

The country is the fifth largest emitter of greenhouse gases, according to the World Resources Institute thinktank. Jakarta promised last week at the United Nations to curb emissions by 2030.

Singapore had offered to send C-130 aircraft to Indonesia to conduct cloud seeding operations and Chinook helicopters to douse the forest fires but Jakarta refused the offer, Indonesian state news agency Antara said.

“We will first strive to overcome [the fires] by ourselves. So far, there has not been any agreement with Singapore [about dealing with these fires],” cabinet secretary Pramono Anung was quoted as saying.

Malaysia’s Deputy Prime Minister Zahid Hamidi has said Jakarta’s efforts were not enough and it should seek more regional help. The Malaysian minister of defense said on Twitter he had fallen ill due to the haze and warned Malaysians to stay indoors.

Source: Guardian and agencies
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