Toxic haze from forest fires closes schools, airports in Indonesia, Malaysia

Cheryl Sanders
September 20, 2019

Almost 2,500 schools were ordered to suspend classes in Malaysia - including almost 300 in the smog-hit capital of Kuala Lumpur - over soaring health concerns sparked by toxic haze from out-of-control blazes in Indonesia's Sumatra and Borneo islands.

Illegal fires to clear land for agricultural plantations are blazing out of control on Sumatra and Borneo islands, with Jakarta deploying thousands of security forces and water-bombing aircraft to tackle them.

Indonesia's Environment Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar had recently named four Malaysian companies for allegedly being partly responsible for the fires in her country and that orders had been given to seal off their palm oil plantations. Almost 2,500 were shut because of the toxic air.

The air quality level in the city-state remained unhealthy for a second day with the National Environment Agency warning of hazy weather conditions in the next few days.

Thursday's school shutdown marked the first mass closure in Kuala Lumpur as air quality deteriorated to "unhealthy" or "very unhealthy" levels on an official index in many parts of peninsular Malaysia, to the east of Sumatra, with the capital's skyline was shrouded by dense smog.

The Indonesian government has insisted it is doing all it can to fight the fires, with President Joko Widodo saying during a visit to a hard-hit area on Sumatra on Tuesday that "we have made every effort".

There is already a provision under current legislation for the government to act against Malaysian companies found to have contributed to the haze even if they are operating in other countries.

Singapore, directly across the Strait of Malacca from Indonesia's Riau province on the island of Sumatra, experienced air pollution levels ranging between moderate and unhealthy levels on Thursday.

A toxic haze caused by raging forest fires in Indonesia is now starting to affect the health of endangered orangutans in Borneo, an animal welfare group has warned.

"The amount of carbon emissions generated from the fires will roar a fundamental setback to the worldwide fight in opposition to climate alternate", he added.

The haze continue to cause air traffic disruptions, with dozens of flights from three airports in Samarinda, Sampit and Berau in Kalimantan in Indonesia canceled on Wednesday because of reduced visibility, according to AirNav. Organisers say the possibility of haze is one of the issues in their contingency plan for Sunday's showpiece night race, but have not given further details.

Authorities have tried to induce rain through a technique called cloud seeding in a bid to extinguish the fires in Indonesia.

But the onset of the rainy season, which usually starts in October, could be the only thing able to douse the blazes.

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