South-east Asia choked by smog from jungle fires

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The Independent Online

Choking smog from fires in Indonesia is once again threatening tourism, transport and health across south-east Asia.

Choking smog from fires in Indonesia is once again threatening tourism, transport and health across south-east Asia.

In recent days, dangerous levels of smoke have been recorded in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and Thailand, raising fears of a repeat of the 1997 crisis when thousands of people became ill, and billions of pounds were lost in tourist cancellations, disruption to transport, sickness and absence from work.

In Pontianak, in the west of Indonesian Borneo, visibility is down to 50 metres and people have been urged to wear masks or stay indoors after midday. Flights have been delayed because of smog.

Earlier this week, poor visibility forced southern Thai fishermen to stay in port for fear of colliding with shipping. Malaysian schools have closed and those working outside, such as street sweepers, wear masks.

The Malaysian government suppresses news of the air pollution index (API), to avoid discouraging tourists, and insists the smog is easing. But eye irritation and dense smoke are reported across the country, including in the tourist city of Penang. A spokeswoman for Malaysia's environmental department said this week: "We have been monitoring the readings and find that the API is quite stable and should come down in a day or two as we don't see any increasing trend. We don't want to confuse the public with numbers."

This week, however, Malaysia banned open fires, a mandatory step if the API rises above 100. Meenakshi Raman, of the environmental group Sahabat Alam, said: "The people who are monitoring the situation are not telling us what the haze situation is like. We can only guess how bad it is."

The last bad outbreak of "haze", as it is euphemistically known, led to losses estimated at $9.3bn (£6.6bn).Smoke spread from fires in Indonesia's territories of Borneo and Sumatra, many started by plantation companies to clear jungle. But this time many fires appear to be underground, in the peat soil of the rainforest. These fires do not register on satellite images and are nearly impossible to put out. They can smoulder for years under the peat, generating no flames but a lot of smoke.

Appeals by other countries for Indonesia to act have had little effect. "So far, we don't have a clear blueprint of how to cope with the problem," Marzuki Usman, Indonesia's forestry minister, said this week. "We will start to prepare it."