KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia’s government on Sunday declared a state of emergency in two southern districts choked by smog from forest fires in Indonesia as air pollution levels reached 16-year-highs.
Environment minister Palanivel said the air pollutant index (API) hit 750 in the town of Muar—a 16-year high for Malaysia—Sunday morning, with two other towns also reaching hazardous levels.
“The prime minister has signed a declaration of emergency for Muar and Ledang districts,” Palanivel said in a text message.
Haze is an annual problem during drier summer months, when westerly monsoon winds blow smoke from forest fires and slash-and-burn land-clearing on the Indonesian island of Sumatra across the Malacca Strait to Malaysia and Singapore.
Malaysia’s API indicated that the capital Kuala Lumpur was also experiencing “unhealthy” air which has limited visibility to one kilometer, according to Palanivel.
The highest ever API reading was 860 during the 1997-1998 haze crisis that gripped the region.
An emergency was declared in 2005 when readings soared above 500.
Hundreds of schools have been closed since Thursday in Muar, which has a population of about 250,000.
Many Malaysians have begun wearing face masks as a precaution as the pollution levels have climbed.
Meanwhile, Indonesia has begun seeding clouds in an attempt to create rain to extinguish raging fires that have cloaked neighboring Singapore and Malaysia in choking smog.
An aircraft with cloud-seeding equipment on Saturday managed to unleash rain over Bengkalis district on Sumatra island, where some of the biggest fires are burning, disaster management agency official Agus Wibowo said.
“We will continue our cloud-seeding operations today using two aircraft,” he said.
“We hope the haze situation will improve, provide some relief to those affected and everything will go back to normal soon,” he added.
Wibowo said Riau province, where the fires are burning, was in a “state of emergency,” with the Pollution Standards Index exceeding the hazardous 400 level in several locations.
Three helicopters were also to drop water to put out fires on hundreds of hectares of carbon-rich peatland that have engulfed Singapore and Malaysia in smog.
The pollution index dropped to “moderate” in Singapore on Sunday after having hit “hazardous” levels but the smog intensified in parts of southern Malaysia.
The annual haze problem is blamed by Indonesia’s neighbors for affecting tourism and public health.
Singapore and Indonesia have lashed out at each other in recent days after the smog hit “critical” levels which the island-state said was potentially life-threatening to its ill and elderly.
Indonesia’s government has outlawed the use of fire to clear land, but weak enforcement means the ban is largely ignored.