Malaysia

The haze: Are we heading back to 1997?

By Elizabeth Zachariah

June 24, 2013

Schools across the country are being shuttered. Open burning is banned. A state of emergency has already been declared in two districts in South Johor. Shops and pharmacies have run out of face masks. And the blame game between Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur is being cranked up.

Is it going to be 1997 all over again in Malaysia – when forest fires in Indonesia smothered the country with a smoky haze for three months, causing a health crisis, disrupting air travel, hurting the lucrative tourism industry and bringing an economic loss of RM800 million?

Department of Environment director-general Datuk Halimah Hassan told The Malaysian Insider the situation is serious but was not prepared to draw a parallel between 1997 and 2013 just yet.

She said: "It depends on a lot of factors - the weather and the wind direction. So I cannot say for sure."

The signs are not encouraging. The air pollutant index (API) hit 750 in Muar, the highest reading seen in Malaysia for 16 years. An API level of more than 300 is defined as hazardous.

During the severe 1997-1998 haze, the API hit 860 in Kuching and a state of emergency was declared for 10 days. Then as in now, a state of emergency was declared in areas where levels hit hazardous levels. Under the emergency, all non-essential places of employment in the private and public sector are advised to shut down.

Schools in Malacca, Pahang, Kuala Lumpur and Selangor will be closed today. On September 23rd 1997, residents in Kuching wore masks even at home.

Within a short period, more than 10,000 people sought treatment at government clinics in Sarawak for haze-related illnesses. At a mid-day church service in Petaling Jaya on Sunday, several worshippers wore face masks. The current dry weather from the southwest monsoon is expected to end only in September.

The DOE also reported that the number of hotspots in Sumatra rose almost two-fold from 64 on Friday to 118.

Like in 1997, the government is going to embark on a major cloud-seeding operation. Sixteen years ago in desperation, Malaysia sent firefighters to Indonesia to help put out the forest fires. With Environment Minister G. Palanivel heading to Jakarta this week, even that option could be revisited. – June 24, 2013.