KUALA LUMPUR: Air pollution in Malaysia’s capital spiked to “very unhealthy” levels on Sunday as acrid smoke billowing from Indonesian agricultural fires intensified, in an environmental crisis that is fraying regional tempers.
Pollution readings soared past the 200-point level Sunday morning in the Malaysian government’s hourly air-quality index, a threshold that triggers automatic school closures during weekdays.
As the haze built up in Malaysia on Saturday, an airport just outside Kuala Lumpur closed temporarily in the afternoon as visibility dropped to less then 400 meters (yards).
The closure forced at least 20 flights to be cancelled, according to Malaysian media reports, and followed Singapore’s shuttering of schools on Friday as air there worsened to “hazardous” levels.
Parts of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore have been shrouded for weeks in a choking smoke haze from tinder-dry parts of Indonesia’s Sumatra island.
The haze crisis — the worst since mid-2013 — grips the region nearly every year during the dry season, when agricultural land is illegally cleared by burning.
Indonesia has faced pressure from its neighbours to address the problem since it first emerged about 20 years ago.
But the issue has persisted, especially as plantations have expanded, driven in large part by rising global demand for palm oil, a key ingredient in a vast range of everyday consumer products.
Malaysian skies have been a smoky grey for most of the past month, and authorities on September 15 ordered schools closed in Kuala Lumpur and neighbouring states.
Singapore Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam on Friday lashed out at what he called “shocking statements” by senior Indonesian officials perceived as making light of the problem.
Haze levels in Singapore had improved by Sunday, dropping below the “unhealthy” mark.
Indonesian authorities have indicated the problem may not clear up anytime soon.
National Disaster Management Agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho said Saturday that “fires continue to rage” despite a push to extinguish the blazes on farm expanses and peatlands that has included the deployment of military personnel.
He said new fires were cropping up, while those that were previously extinguished had re-emerged in peatlands or had been deliberately re-ignited.
He added that pollution readings in several Indonesian cities were at hazardous levels, and that nearly 168,000 people in affected areas has sought medical treatment for respiratory problems.
Indonesia had earlier declared a state of emergency in Sumatra’s hard-hit Riau province.
Thick white smoke from Indonesian slash-and-burn farming enveloped Malaysia’s capital and other areas Sunday, triggering school closures for the following day as weeks of choking haze showed no sign of abating.
Pollution readings in Kuala Lumpur soared into the “very unhealthy” territory in the Malaysian government’s hourly air-quality index.
The Ministry of Education ordered schools shut on Monday in the capital and three states due to health concerns, the second time this month it has had to issue such an order.
Malaysia, Singapore and large expanses of Indonesia have suffered for weeks from acrid smoke billowing from fires on plantations and peatlands that are being illegally cleared by burning.
The fires are located on Indonesia’s huge islands of Sumatra and Borneo.
The crisis grips the region nearly every year during the dry season, but the current outbreak is one of the worst and longest-lasting in years.
Authorities have said tens of thousands of people in the three countries have been forced to seek medical treatment for respiratory problems, and that dozens of flights have been cancelled or delayed due to poor visibility.
Indonesia has faced pressure from its neighbours to address the problem since it first emerged nearly 20 years ago.
But the issue has persisted, especially as plantations expand to meet rising global demand for products like palm oil, a key ingredient in a vast range of everyday consumer products.
Singapore on Friday ordered rare school closures across the city-state as air reached “hazardous” levels there, with Environment Minister Vivian Balakrishnan saying the problem has lasted “for far too long”.
“This is not a natural disaster. Haze is a man-made problem that should not be tolerated. It has caused major impact on the health, society and economy of our region,” he said in a statement.
The Singapore government also said Friday it had launched legal action against five Indonesian companies blamed for the fires, including multinational Asia Pulp and Paper (APP), which could lead to massive fines.
Air quality in Singapore improved Sunday, dropping below the “unhealthy” mark.
An airport just outside Kuala Lumpur closed temporarily on Saturday afternoon as visibility dropped to less then 400 metres (yards).
That forced at least 20 flights to be cancelled, according to Malaysian media reports.
Other reports on Sunday said air service between the Malaysian city of Kuching and Indonesia’s Pontianak — both of which are on Borneo — was halted until further notice.
Indonesian National Disaster Management Agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho said Saturday that “fires continue to rage” despite a push to extinguish the blazes by more than 25,000 military, police and other personnel.
He said new fires were cropping up, while some that were previously extinguished had flared anew or had been deliberately re-ignited.