Respiratory illness spikes, travel affected as haze hits South-east Asia

(ST) – Indonesia opened temporary clinics to treat thousands of people suffering from acute respiratory illness in the haze-struck regions as the authorities stepped up efforts to douse forest and peatland fires threatening air quality in parts of South-east Asia.

The authorities distributed masks to people in Riau, Jambi, South Sumatra and Kalimantan as the ash and smoke from more than 2,500 hot spots blanketed the region.

More than 9,000 personnel drawn from the military, police and disaster mitigation agency, with the help of 42 helicopters, are involved in fighting the fire, official data showed on Monday (Sept 16).

Stinging smoke from illegal burning to clear land for palm oil and paper plantations has prompted school closures and disrupted travel in the region, and even forced Indonesians to flee their homes.

Malaysia plans to carry out cloud seeding in the worst affected regions, the Star newspaper reported on Sunday.

The air quality in Singapore, which slipped to unhealthy levels last Saturday, is forecast to improve, according to the National Environment Agency.


The total number of hot spots in Indonesia fell to 2,583 on Monday from 2,862 on Sunday, with the Indonesian part of the Borneo island alone accounting for almost 1,200 forest fires.

The hot spots have affected 328,724ha of forest and farmland this year, data from the National Disaster Mitigation Agency shows. The agency stands ready to undertake cloud-seeding to douse the fire, it said.


The weather is forecast to remain generally dry in the southern Asean region and the prevailing winds are expected to continue blowing from the south-east or south-west.

With the hot spots in Sumatra and Kalimantan persisting with the dry weather, hazy conditions in the region look set to remain, the Asian Specialised Meteorological Centre said in a statement.


Kuching and Kuala Lumpur, Hanoi and Jakarta were among the world’s top 10 cities with the poorest air quality, according to IQAir AirVisual pollution data.

The air quality index in Kuching in haze-hit Sarawak state was 241 on Monday, a level deemed very unhealthy, while it was at 130 in Kuala Lumpur, an unhealthy level for sensitive groups.


The haze blanketing western parts of Indonesia continues to cause air traffic disruptions. A total of 11 airports were affected on Monday with 10 flights cancelled, 50 flights delayed and a few others diverted as the haze lowered the visibility, according to Airnav. Garuda Indonesia, the national carrier, said it will cancel 15 flights up till Sept 19.


Indonesian authorities will conclude an environmental study on the location for new capital identified by President Joko Widodo in East Kalimantan, the Environment Ministry said on Monday.

While the province is largely free from hot spots, haze from fires raging in other parts of Borneo can affect the new capital, Environment Ministry inspector-general Laksmi Wijayanti told reporters. The capital relocation may also mean greater law enforcement in the region.


Schools in Pekanbaru, the main city in Riau, were ordered to be closed through Tuesday as a thick smog cover engulfed the city, the Tempo reported.

More than 300 schools in Malaysia’s southern state of Johor were closed on Sunday after the Air Pollutant Index hit very unhealthy levels, the Star reports. Johor’s weekend is on Fridays and Saturdays, with Sundays being normal work days.


Malaysian plantation company Kuala Lumpur Kepong will cooperate with the Indonesian authorities in the investigation into forest fires on land owned by a subsidiary, Adei Plantation and Industry, according to report from Bernama last Saturday.


Local authorities in the Thai district of Hat Yai, under the Songkhla province, were handing out face masks to residents and tourists, according to the Bangkok Post last Friday.

The local environmental office reported a haze reading of PM2.5 at 54 micrograms per cubic m of air, exceeding the safe threshold set at 50 in Thailand.


Environment ministers from Malaysia and Indonesia have traded blame on the haze situation with Kuala Lumpur offering help to put out the forest fires.

Singapore’s Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources said the country has offered technical firefighting assistance to Indonesia and is prepared to deploy resources if requested.