KUALA LUMPUR: When the reading on the Air Pollution Index (API) began to fluctuate between 200 and 300 on Tuesday evening, it prompted Malaysia’s National Disaster Management Agency to send 500,000 face masks to Sarawak.
The toxicity in the air had put more than 150,000 students at risk, forcing the Education Ministry to suspend classes for 409 primary and secondary schools due to health concerns.
Malaysia has been hit by haze from forest fires in neighboring Indonesia since last week. The resulting smog situation — a yearly issue for the country — is worsening in several areas of Malaysia, including the capital Kuala Lumpur, and engulfing other areas in the region, including Indonesia, Singapore, southern Thailand and the southern Philippines.
On Wednesday, Malaysian authorities cautioned people against breathing in the smoke, warning that continuous exposure could have long-term effects on their lungs. “The public are advised to stay at home … any physical activities outside would make a person breath more of the air pollutants and increase the risk of haze-related illnesses,” said Dr. Noor Hisham Abdullah, department head at Malaysia’s Ministry of Health.
Meanwhile, the Malaysian government has opted for cloud seeding measures to create artificial rainfall and clear the air of pollutants.
“The Malaysian government will continue to do cloud seeding whenever the situation allows and send assistance to Indonesia if and when they accepted the offer,” said Yeo Bee Yin, minister of energy, science, technology, environment and climate change.
The haze problem has become a recurring issue for decades in the Southeast Asia region, despite the ratification of the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution in 2014.
According to ASEAN’s Specialized Meteorological Center (ASMC), the hotspots consistently experiencing the problem are the provinces of Riau, Jambi, South Sumatra and Lampung.
“This problem started in 1997 — that’s 20 years of ‘talking,’” said Prof. James Chin, an Australia-based political analyst, adding that “it’s the people and animals like the orangutan who are paying the price.”
“Indonesian (has) no capacity to fight fires. The fires are too many and are in the deep jungle. Besides that, there is too much corruption happening at the local level,” Chin said.
The root cause of the forest fires in Indonesia is complicated. Singapore-based analyst Dr. Oh Ei Sun told Arab News that among the causes of the current haze are the “slash-and-burn” techniques used by oil palm plantation owners and local residents.
“Most of the oil palm plantation are owned by non-Indonesians, and the weak enforcement of the law in Indonesia allowed the clearing forests to open more lands for planting oil palms,” he said.
“So until these two practices could be somehow addressed, the haze could not be cleared,” he warned.
The Indonesian government has deployed thousands of fire-fighters and helicopters to prevent the fires from further engulfing the forests in Sumatra and Kalimantan.
“When traditional beliefs are replaced by the capitalist spirit, greed and profits become paramount,” said Australia-based anthropologist Prof. Alberto Gomez.
“We need more governmental and civil society organizations to work with communities to seek alternative economic pursuits such as agroforestry, instead of the fixation on cash crops like palm oil,” he told Arab News.