From: Pauline Jasudason, Associated Press
Published October 6, 2006 12:00 AM

Malaysia's Air Worsens as Haze Spreads

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — A choking, smoky haze spread to more areas in Malaysia on Thursday, with only five of the country's 51 monitoring stations reporting clean air as officials began distributing masks in the hardest-hit state, Sarawak.

Fifteen monitoring centers across Malaysia reported officially designated "unhealthy" air levels Thursday, a Department of the Environment official said, speaking on condition of anonymity due to department policy.

On Wednesday, 11 centers had shown "unhealthy" Air Pollution Index or API readings of 101 and above.

Eight of the stations with the latest unhealthy readings were in Malaysia's Sarawak state on Borneo island.

Visibility in parts of Sarawak was down to less than a kilometer (half a mile), media there reported.

The environment official said only five of the country's 51 monitoring stations reported clean air recordings Thursday. Malaysia's API index designates readings of one to 50 as "clean" and 50-100 as "moderate."

The Star newspaper said Thursday that Sarawak residents are now eligible for 10 free masks each, and that cloud-seeding operations have begun in an attempt to prompt rainfall.

The reading for Malacca, a key tourist destination, rose to the unhealthy level Thursday, joining major urban center Seremban and the industrial town of Nilai.

All three are a short drive from Malaysia's largest city, Kuala Lumpur, as well as the administrative capital of Putrajaya and the main airport in Sepang.

Readings for Kuala Lumpur and Sepang were also near 100, with some city landmarks shrouded by the smog and prompting schoolchildren and some residents to wear masks.

The haze is an annual occurrence caused by land-clearing fires in Indonesia, and sometimes in Malaysia.

The fires are typically started by farmers clearing brush for plantations, often on Sumatra island and in Kalimantan province, Indonesia's portion of Borneo.

The worst case of smoke-induced haze occurred in 1997-98. It blanketed much of Southeast Asia, resulting in losses of nearly US$9 billion in lost tourism, health and business costs.

The opposition Democratic Action Party in a statement slammed Indonesia for failing to curb illegal open burning and for not seeking international help to put out the fires.

It urged Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi to call an emergency meeting of Southeast Asian countries to demand Indonesia take measures to check the haze and prevent it from becoming an annual disaster for the region.

Otherwise, it said Indonesia should "pay for its mistakes ... by making adequate compensation for the health damage, economic losses and sufferings endured by 26 million Malaysians."

National news agency Bernama reported Wednesday that helicopter flights and the "Flying Doctor" services, crucial to many living in inland areas, have been suspended. Two commercial flights inbound to Sarawak have also been diverted, it said.

Source: Associated Press

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