Malaysia calls in a rainmaker to wash away the smog

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The Independent Online
In the Klang Valley, the heart of industrialised Malaysia, they have not seen the sky for two months, and in parts of Brunei motorists have been driving with their headlights on during the middle of the day. In Kuala Lumpur, cases of asthma are up by 50 per cent, and dozens of flights have been cancelled.

The Indonesian government, which began by blaming it on the poor, yesterday placed responsibility with the rich, and its environment minister, Sarwono Kusumaatmadja, called the situation a "national disaster".

What 19th-century Londoners knew as smog and modern Athenians refer to as the nephos (clouds) has finally come to South-East Asia. Here it is known simply as "the haze" - a thick cloud of smoke and pollutants which has hovered over the region's cities for much of the summer. Yesterday, for the first time, the Malaysian government announced its intention to hire private rain-making aircraft to seed clouds to wash away the worst of the haze. "We are facing a serious threat to the health of 20 million people," Mr Kusumaatmadja said.

No one wants to take responsibility for such a disaster, but its broad causes are fairly clear. The reassuring explanation - reassuring because it lies beyond the control of any government - is an atmospheric phenomenon known as El Nino - the "Christ Child". El Nino sounds unexciting - a warm ocean current which originates off the coast of Ecuador every two to seven years (frequently around Christmas, hence its name). But the consequences of a powerful El Nino, like the one now surging across the Pacific Ocean, are devastating and amazingly widespread. Storm fronts batter California. Unseasonal rain soaks Israel. Billions of plankton perish off Peru along with the marine animals which feed off them, crippling the country's fishing industry. And South-East Asia suffers extended droughts. According to Mr Kusumaatmadja yesterday, this year's monsoon rains are not expected until December, two months late. The drought is bringing failures of rice, coffee and maize crops as far away as Java and North Korea.

It is also creating the dry conditions ideal for forest fires. Most of these are in Indonesia, whose government seems unable to make up its mind about their extent. On Monday, 740,000 acres were reckoned to have been burned, but yesterday this figure was reduced to 250,000. Either way, the smoke they are producing is drifting across from the huge islands of Sumatra and Borneo and blanketing the region.

In another about-turn, the Indonesia government has absolved those originally fingered for starting the fires - indigenous tribes people practising traditional slash and burn farming. Mr Kusumaatmadja says he true culprits are "big bosses", the owners of Indonesia's many lucrative logging concessions who have cleared vast areas of rain forest for timber and for rubber planting. "While bosses of large plantations just walk into their air-conditioned offices if the situation becomes too smoky, these voiceless people have to take all the blame and suffer from suffocating smoke," he told the Jakarta Post newspaper.

But it is not the fires alone which are too blame. As in Victorian Britain, or post-war Greece, smog is a result of high-speed industrialisation, the very industrialisation which has transformed South-East Asia into the world's fastest growing economic region. In the Klang Valley, around the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur, 10,000 new vehicles are sold every month. The affluence which has accompanied this growth has given Asians opportunities which they could never have imagined a generation ago. This year, however, it is also depriving them of what they could never imagined losing - the sun in the morning, and the sight of the blue sky above their heads.

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