From: Associated Press
Published October 19, 2004 12:00 AM

Smoke from Forest Fires Clouds Skies in Indonesia and Malaysia

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Smoke from wildfires in Indonesia polluted skies there and in neighboring Malaysia, triggering health concerns and blanketing some cities in haze, officials said.


The drop in air quality could step up pressure on the Indonesian government to ratify a treaty to strengthen pollution laws aimed at curbing open burning, which is blamed for the smog that often hangs over parts of Southeast Asia during dry seasons.


Visibility in some suburbs of Kuala Lumpur fell to around 5 kilometers (3 miles) recently, less than half the normal level, the Meteorological Department reported.


The worst-hit city was Kuching, the capital of Malaysia's Sarawak state on Borneo Island, where visibility hovered around 3 kilometers (1.8 miles).


Authorities blamed the pollution on more than 1,000 "hot spots" reportedly detected on Indonesia's Sumatra Island and in Kalimantan province in Borneo, where plantation owners and farmers often illegally burn their land to make way for new crops.


Officials in Palembang, the provincial capital of South Sumatra, will distribute masks to the city's residents to protect them from the harmful effects of the haze, the city's mayor, Eddy Santana Putra, told the Jakarta Post newspaper.


However, skies in neighboring Singapore remained haze-free. The city-state's National Environment Agency reported on its Web site that the Pollutants Standards Index stood at 46 recently, putting the air quality there in the "good" range.


Indonesia's neighbors have called on it to ratify a 2002 pact among the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations aimed at reducing air pollution specifically by enforcing bans on open burning of forests, plantations, and farms.


The deal was negotiated after fires raged out of control for weeks in Indonesia in 1997-98, enveloping the country and its neighbors in thick smog that sparked a diplomatic row and regional economic losses estimated at US$9.3 billion.


Source: Associated Press


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