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Singaporeans hunker down as air pollution from Indonesia soars to life-threatening levels

Jakarta sends in choppers to seed clouds, fight fires

AFP-JIJI

Indonesia on Friday dispatched helicopters to create artificial rain in a desperate bid to fight raging fires that are choking Singapore with record-breaking levels of smog that is threatening people’s lives.

At a late-night emergency meeting, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono ordered disaster officials to “immediately mobilize all the country’s resources” to extinguish the fires on Sumatra island that have created vast palls of smoke.

Singapore’s worst environmental crisis in more than a decade has seen the acrid smoke creep into people’s flats and cloak residential blocks as well as downtown skyscrapers. The city-state’s prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, has warned it could last weeks.

Indonesia’s National Disaster Agency said two helicopters with cloud-seeding equipment were sent early Friday from Jakarta and Borneo Island to Riau province, where hundreds of hectares of carbon-rich peat land are ablaze.

“Hopefully, we will be able to create artificial rain today,” said agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho.

He also said water-bombing helicopters could be dispatched, although he gave no time frame. Firefighters on the ground have struggled to put out the blazes, which are smoldering under the surface of the peat.

Singapore’s smog index, meanwhile, hit the critical 400 level, making it potentially life-threatening to the ill and elderly, according to a government monitoring site.

The all-time record was reached at 11 a.m. Friday after a rapid rise in the Pollutant Standards Index.

According to Singapore government guidelines, sustained PSI levels above an average of 400 on a 24-hour basis “may be life-threatening to ill and elderly persons.”

Before the crisis erupted Monday, Singapore’s previous high was 226, recorded in September 1997 at the height of a Southeast Asian calamity.

That episode also resulted from vast amounts of haze from Indonesia, where slash-and-burn farming generates heavy smoke during the dry season that normally begins in June.

Parts of Malaysia close to Singapore have also been severely affected by smog this week.

The haze crisis has had a dramatic impact on life in Singapore, with the city-state’s residents scaling back their activities in a bid to protect themselves.

Fast-food deliveries have been canceled, the army has suspended field training and even Singapore’s top marathon runner has been forced to train indoors.

Hunched commuters are wearing masks or covering their mouths by hand as they travel to and from home.

The haze crisis has caused tensions to escalate dramatically between tiny Singapore and its vast neighbor, with the city-state repeatedly demanding that Jakarta step up its efforts to put out the fires.