SINGAPORE – Singapore’s air quality deteriorated to “unhealthy” levels on Saturday for the first time in three years, data from the National Environment Agency showed, threatening to deepen a regional dispute over forest fires.
Every dry season, smoke from fires to clear land for palm oil and pulp and paper plantations in Indonesia clouds the skies over much of the region, raising concerns about public health and worrying tourist operators and airlines.
The 24-hour Pollution Standards Index, which Singapore’s NEA uses as a benchmark, was in a range of 87-106 in the afternoon. A reading above 100 is considered unhealthy.
This is the first time the 24-hour benchmark has breached 100 since August 2016, data shows.
“There has been a deterioration in the haze conditions in Singapore this afternoon,” the NEA said in a statement. “This was due to a confluence of winds over the nearby region that led to more smoke haze from Sumatra being blown toward Singapore.”
Many people chose to stay indoors on Saturday as a gray haze shrouded the city.
Malaysia closed hundreds of schools and sent half a million face masks to Sarawak earlier in the week after the smoke built up to unhealthy levels.
Malaysia plans to carry out cloud seeding in central Selangor state and parts of the peninsula to fight the haze, the Star newspaper reported on Sunday, citing government deputy minister Isnaraissah Munirah Majilis.
Indonesian authorities are investigating four companies, including palm oil producers, over fires on the islands of Sumatra and Kalimantan. As many as 42 properties have been sealed off, the Antara news agency reported.
More than 300 schools in Malaysia’s southern state of Johor were closed Sunday after the air pollution index hit very unhealthy levels, the Star reported. Johor’s weekend is Friday and Saturday with Sunday being a normal work day.
In Thailand, authorities in Songkhla province’s district of Hat Yai have been handing out face masks to residents and tourists, according to the Bangkok Post. The environmental office in Songkhla province reported a haze reading of PM2.5 at 54 micrograms per cubic meter of air, exceeding the safe threshold set at 50 in Thailand.
Air quality in Indonesian towns closest to the fires have risen to hazardous levels and on Wednesday thousands held mass Islamic prayer for rain.
Malaysia said earlier in the week that Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad would write to Indonesia’s leader to raise his concern about cross-border haze.
Indonesia rejected Malaysia’s complaints, saying blazes were also raging in parts of Malaysia.
Singapore, which prides itself on its clean air, passed a cross-border air pollution law in 2014 that makes those who cause haze both criminally and civilly liable.
Next weekend is the Singapore Formula One Grand Prix road race, a marquee event that draws the world’s attention to the wealthy tourist destination.