(From Reuters)

A worsening haze across northern Indonesia, neighboring Singapore and parts of Malaysia Tuesday forced some schools to close and airlines to cancel flights, while Indonesia ordered a crackdown against lighting fires to clear forested land.

Petronas Twin Towers, center, and other buildings are shrouded by haze in Kuala Lumpur Tuesday
Petronas Twin Towers, center, and other buildings are shrouded by haze in Malaysia’s capital Kuala Lumpur Tuesday

Southeast Asia has suffered for years from annual bouts of smog caused by slash-and-burn practices in Indonesia’s Sumatra and Kalimantan islands, but governments in the region have failed to address the problem.

The fires have been exacerbated this year by the effects of the El Nino weather phenomenon, as a prolonged dry season in Indonesia has parched the top soil, fuelling the flames.

President Joko Widodo, who was on an official visit to the Middle East, said he had instructed security forces to accelerate efforts to extinguish the fires, responsible for the haze spreading over the past few weeks.

“I have asked authorities to take strict legal action against those responsible for the forest fires, including revoking their land permits,” he said in a statement issued late Monday.

Indonesia’s Riau province declared a state of emergency this week as an air quality index hit a “dangerous” high of 984 in the provincial capital and affected over 25,000 people, according to the national disaster management agency. In Singapore, the index has fluctuated above 100, levels considered “unhealthy”, for the past few days, with the poor air quality causing respiratory problems, and irritating eyes and throats.

Indonesia has struggled for years to contain forest fires and the resulting haze despite repeatedly promises to punish the perpetrators.

Indonesian police have named over 100 people as suspects in slash-and-burn cases in Kalimantan and Sumatra, according to local media.

The unhealthy air has also increased the workload for doctors in Malaysia and Singapore, where the haze has clouded the build-up to the Formula One night race to be held there later this week.

“My daughter keeps having to go to the doctor for her wheezing and blocked nose,” said C.S. Ebenezer, 46, a resident of Singapore, where many have been forced to wear face masks.

“The constant barbecue smell is really obnoxious.”

Malaysia said it was preparing to conduct cloud-seeding operations to reduce the haze as schools were closed in several states and some flights were disrupted due to poor visibility.

The smog is usually caused by firms and small-holder farmers clearing land adjacent to existing concessions for palm or pulp and paper.

Major plantation companies like Asia Pulp and Paper say they have a “zero burning” policy but have often been criticized by green groups for not doing enough to stop the haze.

“The problem is, most of the fires were happening outside of known (land) concession boundaries,” said WRI research analyst Andika Putraditama. “This makes it very difficult for the government to monitor and enforce the law when it comes to forest fires.”

Singapore’s environment minister said late Monday that Indonesia had agreed to share names of companies causing the fires once the information had been verified.

Indonesian Forestry and Environment Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar last week said authorities were investigating 10 firms, which could face sanctions if found violating the law.

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