Malaysia prays for rain as noxious clouds spread from Sumatra

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Millions prayed for rain across Malaysia as more cities were choked by the noxious yellow haze blown north from raging forest fires on the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

Indonesian forestry officials were trying to put out the fires with buckets of water yesterday, even as Jakarta refused offers of help from neighbouring countries, claiming it could deal with the crisis itself.

The onset of the acrid clouds drifting across Kuala Lumpur has been made more galling to Malaysians by the fact that many of the fires have been set deliberately by plantation owners, farmers and miners on Sumatra to clear the land of unwanted trees - a practice criticised by environmentalists.

There was a brief respite for Kuala Lumpur and central Malaysia yesterday as the wind changed, carrying the choking smoke away. But meteorologists warned that the respite was unlikely to last.

Many people were still wearing face masks in Kuala Lumpur yesterday, and asthma attacks are soaring. Air pollution remained severe enough to be considered a health risk in six areas of the city, and many schools remained closed.

On Thursday the situation was even worse, with the Malaysian government declaring emergencies in two parts of the capital and hundreds of schools closed. Some flights have been prevented from taking off by poor visibility, and shipping has been disrupted. Malaysia fears the potential impact on its tourist industry could be severe.

"When something like this happens, we have to ask for God's help," the Malaysian Prime Minister, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, said in a public address.

In an attempt to cause rain to disperse the smoke, Malaysia is planning cloud seeding over the worst-affected areas. The monsoon is not due in the country until October.

Many of the fires in Indonesia are believed to have been started by palm oil producers using the "slash and burn" method to clear land for their lucrative plantations. They need permits from the government for this, but environmentalists say enforcement is poor.

"Corruption and collusion is rampant. It's become public knowledge and no longer a secret," Ruly Syumanda, an Indonesian environmentalist, told the AFP news agency.

Indonesia has been criticised by Malaysia for failing to control the practice, but it has emerged that many of the fires may have been set by Malaysian-owned palm oil companies operating in Indonesia.

"I feel very wretched," Mr Badawi said. "By now, they should have realised that what they did would have an impact here in Malaysia, their own country." Ministers from both countries have agreed on a plan to tackle the problem.

But Indonesia has come under renewed criticism for so far refusing help from Malaysia and other neighbouring countries in the 10-member Asean bloc to put out the fires. "We are taking this very seriously," said a spokesman for the Indonesian President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. "The President understands the health and economic impact the fires have, not just in Indonesia but regionally. He has promised to mobilise national and provincial resources to put out the fires."

But a forestry official on Sumatra said that up to 5,000 acres were burning in one district, Riau, alone, and that 400 people who were equipped only with buckets of water were trying to put out the fire.