Air pollution forces school closures, disaster responses . . .
Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore have been experiencing increasingly hazy skies in recent weeks with air pollution rising to unhealthy levels in many areas. Two Indonesian provinces closed all schools this week with air quality falling to “unhealthy” and “dangerous” levels. Malaysia’s national disaster management agency sent half-a-million face masks to its eastern state of Sarawak where the situation is worst, and the state education agency ordered hundreds of schools in eight districts to close because of poor air quality. Meanwhile, Singapore’s national environment agency alerted people to reduce outdoor activities given the poor air quality.
Fires in dispute . . .
The haze is reportedly caused by slash-and-burn practices in Indonesia, where farmers burn the land to prepare for oil palm and other plantations. Last week, Malaysia said it would send a diplomatic note to Indonesia urging immediate action to fight the air pollution. However, Indonesia denies the accusations saying satellite images prove that the haze affecting Malaysia late last week did not originate in Indonesia, but rather from local fires in Malaysia and Vietnam.
An annual phenomenon . . .
Southeast Asia has suffered for years from smoke and haze caused by annual fires and countries have pressured Indonesia to take action. The worst instance was in 2015 when Indonesia declared a state of emergency in Sumatra due to a thick haze that spread across the region and the Straits of Malacca. This year, combined with increasing forest fire hotspots due to the El Nino warm-ocean pattern, many predict the situation will get worse. Meanwhile, pressure against Jakarta has become more intense, given the international outrage over forest fires in the Amazon.