High above the vast Indonesian island of Sumatra, satellites identify hundreds of plumes of smoke drifting over the oil palm plantations and rainforests. They look harmless as the monsoon winds sweep them north and east toward Singapore, Malaysia and deep into Cambodia, Laos and Thailand. Yet at ground level, Southeast Asian cities have been choking for weeks, wreathed in an acrid, stinking blanket of half-burned vegetation, mixed with industrial pollution, car exhaust fumes and ash.
From Indonesia’s Palangkarya on Borneo to Kuala Lumpur, the air has been thick, the sun a dull glow and face masks obligatory. Schools, airports and roads have been closed, and visibility at times has been down to just a few meters. Communities have had to be evacuated and people advised to remain indoors, transport has been disrupted and more than 50,000 people have had to be treated for asthma, bronchitis and other respiratory illnesses in Sumatra alone. Last week, more than 200 Malaysian schools were forced to close, and pollution twice reached officially hazardous levels.
The Asian “haze,” which comes and goes with the wind and droughts, is back with a vengeance just eight months after an embarrassed Indonesian government promised it would never happen again and was forced to apologize to neighboring countries for the pollution that blanketed the region in June last year.
Mixed with the dense photo-chemical smogs that regularly hang over most large traffic-choked Asian cities, Southeast Asia’s air pollution has become not just a major public health hazard, but is said to be now threatening food production, tourism and economic expansion. In addition, scientists say it may now be exacerbating climate change.
According to NASA satellite maps, more than 3,000 separate fires have been recorded across Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia since the middle of January, more than in June last year when the pollution spiked to dangerous levels and became a regional diplomatic crisis. This time the monsoon winds mostly spared Singapore, but sent the thick smog from burning peat soils and vegetation over much of the region. About 10 million people and an area the size of Britain and France have been affected.
Just as last year, most of this year’s fires appear to have been started in Riau Province, northern Sumatra, the center of the rampant Indonesian palm oil and pulp-paper industries. Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said 70 percent of these fires were lit by landowners wanting to clear ground for more plantations. Yet while Indonesia is widely blamed for the air pollution, the latest satellite images show fires burning and haze spreading across Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos and as far away as the Philippines and Papua Province.
What has surprised observers is the timing: The burning season, when farmers clear land, does not usually start for many months. Monitoring groups such as Walhi, the World Resources Institute and Greenpeace say the fires are linked to the worst drought seen in years and corruption and inaction at government level. The Riau government said that so far only a handful of suspects have been held for setting the fires.
Nearly half are burning on land managed by large pulpwood, palm oil and logging companies which have turned the rainforest into a giant fire-prone region by clearing millions of acres for plantations, said Nigel Sizer of the Washington-based World Resources Institute, which uses satellite data to pinpoint hot spots. The corporations have denied involvement, saying the latest fires were illegally set.