Zubaidah Nazeer & Carolyn Hong – Straits Times Indonesia
The haze is back, with parts of Malaysia and Indonesia blanketed in choking smoke; Singapore could be affected soon too. And the haze could be around for the next three months.
A combination of large numbers of land-clearing fires and scorching weather, which sparks brush fires, has seen the number of hot spots in Sumatra go up in recent weeks.
From 60 hot spots detected on Sunday, the number rose to 136 on Monday and 156 on Tuesday before dropping to 119 on Wednesday and 45 yesterday because of sporadic rainfall. The situation this time last year was better because of wet weather hitting the region.
The effects of the heat and haze are being felt acutely in the Klang Valley, including Kuala Lumpur, driving many Malaysians as well as tourists indoors.
Emma George Francis, 22, a Swede who has spent five days in Kuala Lumpur, said the air was smokier yesterday compared to earlier this week. “My throat feels dry in this haze,” Francis said. “I’ve been drinking lots of water, and shopping mostly in the malls.”
Port Klang, about 40 kilometers southwest of Kuala Lumpur, hit an “unhealthy” level of 104 on the pollution index yesterday morning before falling back into the “moderate” range of 99 at 5pm after a late afternoon downpour. The readings of five surrounding areas at 5pm were above 80, the high side of moderate.
There will be some reprieve as more rain can be expected next week, according to a Meteorological Services Department officer.
Thick haze began to envelope parts of Sumatra late last month, causing breathing difficulties and forcing people to cut back on outdoor activities.
A meteorologist in Sumatra’s Riau province, Ardi Tama, said on Thursday the haze could be around until August.
Of the 156 hot spots detected on Tuesday, almost half — or 77 — were in Riau. The province has also seen some of the highest temperatures this year.
Ardi said: “We have seen temperatures peak at 36.5 deg C in Riau, the highest on record. It has since gone down to 34 deg C, which is still above the normal 32 deg C for this period.”
Contacted on Thursday, the National Environment Agency (NEA) said air quality in Singapore remained in the ‘good’ range, although “some slight haziness may be expected … under light wind condition.”
Late morning or early afternoon showers could help dispel the haziness, NEA said, adding it is monitoring the situation in the region closely.
But there are signs that the winds could carry the thick smoke to Singapore.
“The winds are blowing in a north-easterly direction towards Singapore and Malaysia,” Ardi said. Riau is one of the Indonesian provinces closest to Singapore.
For now, the worst-hit areas remain those in Sumatra. On April 27, it prevented a SilkAir flight from landing in Pekanbaru, local reports said. Last Saturday, a Garuda plane was diverted from Jambi to Palembang also because of poor visibility caused by the haze. There have been no reports of airport closures as yet.
In the subdistrict of Rokan Hilir, Surya Arfan, the head of an environmental impact control agency there, told Antara news agency that his officials had found several pieces of idle land burning.
“In the next few days, if the condition gets worse, we will distribute face masks especially to elementary students who are taking the national exam at present.”
The haze season usually occurs each year from June to September, which is the dry season in Indonesia and also a time when farmers clear their land using the slash-and-burn method.
The worst haze to hit the region took place in 1997. In 2006, it was so bad that Malaysia was forced to close Port Klang and declare a state of emergency in Klang and Kuala Selangor.
Asean’s efforts to tackle the annual haze problem saw nine of its members ink the 2002 Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution. Only Indonesia has yet to ratify the accord.
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