KUALA LUMPUR/JAKARTA – Malaysia’s government Sunday declared a state of emergency in two southern districts choked by smog from forest fires in Indonesia as air pollution levels reached 16-year-highs.
Environment Minister G. Palanivel said the air pollutant index (API) hit 750 in the town of Muar — a 16-year high for Malaysia — Sunday morning, with two other towns also reaching hazardous levels.
“The prime minister has signed a declaration of emergency for Muar and Ledang districts,” Palanivel said in a text message.
Haze is an annual problem during the drier summer months, when westerly monsoon winds blow smoke from forest fires and slash-and-burn land-clearing on the Indonesian island of Sumatra across the Malacca Strait to Malaysia and Singapore.
Malaysia’s API indicated that the capital, Kuala Lumpur, was also experiencing “unhealthy” air, and visibility was down to just 1 km, Palanivel said.
The highest ever API reading was 860 during the 1997-1998 haze crisis that gripped the region. An emergency also was declared in 2005, when readings soared above 500.
Hundreds of schools have been closed since Thursday in Muar, which has a population of about 250,000.
Many Malaysians have begun wearing face masks as a precaution after pollution levels climbed.
The annual haze problem is blamed by Indonesia’s neighbors for affecting tourism and public health. Singapore and Indonesia have lashed out at each other in recent days after smog hit critical levels that the island-state said are potentially life-threatening to its ill and elderly.
Indonesia’s government has outlawed the use of fire to clear land, but weak enforcement means the ban is for the most part ignored.
In the meantime, it has blamed Malaysian and Singapore-based palm oil companies for permitting slash-and-burn tactics to be used on estates of their own on Sumatra.
The 1997-1998 haze crisis cost Southeast Asia an estimated $9 billion because of disruptions to air travel and other business activities.
Smoke from the fires that has cloaked Singapore in record levels of smog highlight Indonesia’s continued failure to prevent illegal slash-and-burn land clearance, activists say.
While environmental groups have been leading the charge against the companies, they say such problems would not occur so frequently if Indonesia actually enforced its laws.
Legislation has not been properly implemented due to gaps in capacity, such as a lack of field officers, said Anwar Purwoto, forest program director for WWF Indonesia.
“We need high political commitment followed by political will from central down to local government,” he said.
An Lambrechts, a forest campaigner with Greenpeace, added: “The causes that underlie these fires are agriculture, expansion and expansion of plantations.”
But she said it is down to the government “to impose its own legislation much more strongly — these fires are illegal.”
However, Hadi Daryanto, a senior official at the Forestry Ministry, said stopping such fires is “not simply about law enforcement.”
“We cannot determine whether this is related to economic, social, environmental or political problems,” he said, pointing to the fact that it is not simply big companies setting vast swathes of virgin forest alight to turn a quick profit, but that small landowners are also setting fires.
WWF’s Purwoto said many of the fire hot spots in Riau are actually on land owned by local communities rather than big companies.
“Both communities and private companies should be responsible for addressing the problem,” he said.
While activists believe the government needs to enforce existing laws more strongly, even they recognize the difficulties for an emerging country such as Indonesia.
“Indonesia is a young democracy, so it is in the process of finding out how decentralization can work in the best possible way,” said Lambrechts.