Malaysia shuts 400 schools as haze spreads

Malaysia shuts 400 schools as haze spreads

Petronas Twin Towers are shrouded by haze in Kuala Lumpur on Monday. (Reuters photo)
Petronas Twin Towers are shrouded by haze in Kuala Lumpur on Monday. (Reuters photo)

SINGAPORE/JAKARTA: Malaysia closed more than 400 schools, citing unhealthy air quality as smoke and ash from raging forest fires in Indonesia spread to more areas in countries from Thailand to the Philippines.

Malaysian authorities ordered the closing of schools in Sarawak state after the air quality reached “very unhealthy” levels — a reading of between 201-300 on the air quality index, the education ministry said in a statement Tuesday. The haze also engulfed the southern provinces of the Philippines and Songkhla in Thailand.

Indonesia has warned of an increase in the number of hotspots this year, reviving fears of a repeat of the deadly haze which engulfed Singapore, parts of Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand for over a month in 2015. More than 2,500 hotspots scattered throughout Southeast Asia were detected in the past week, Indonesia’s weather agency said on Sunday, citing satellite data.

Hotspots may continue to emerge in southern parts of the equator in Indonesia until next month as the start of the rainy season is seen delayed to November, said Dwikorita Karnawati, head of the nation’s the Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency. There was no evidence to suggest that the haze in Malaysia was caused by the fires in Indonesia, she said.

Water bombing

With a total of 328,724 hectares consisting of 89,563 hectares of peat-land being affected by the forest fires, authorities have stepped efforts to contain the damage.

The disaster mitigation agency is using 46 helicopters for water bombing, weather modification and artificial rain operations, Raffles Brotestes Panjaitan, director for forest fire control at the environment and forestry ministry, told reporters in Jakarta Tuesday.

Singapore has been experiencing slightly hazy conditions since Tuesday morning due to smoke blown in by persistent hotspots in Sumatra, the National Environment Agency said, adding the pollutant index was trending toward an unhealthy range.

The gauge stood at 85-97 on Tuesday afternoon, deteriorating from 72-80 a day earlier, agency data show. A gauge above 100 is “unhealthy”, according to a health advisory by the agency.

Indonesia has deployed thousands of military, police and disaster mitigation agency workers to extinguish forest and land fires in more than 1,600 spots. The disaster mitigation agency is using 37 aircraft for water bombing, weather modification and artificial rain operations, it said in a statement.

The blazes are often started to clear land for plantations in the world’s largest producer of the edible oil from palm trees. The recurrence of fires prompted Indonesian President Joko Widodo to make permanent a ban on clearing new forest land for farming.

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