August 11, 2005

Malaysia’s haze crisis eases but false dawn feared

By Jahabar Sadiq

PORT KLANG, Malaysia (Reuters) - Malaysia's worst pollution
crisis in eight years appeared to ease on Friday, a week after
large parts of the country began choking on thick forest-fire
smoke blowing across from neighboring Indonesia.

In Malaysia's biggest port, one of two areas declared an
emergency zone on Thursday, the sun still appeared as a feeble
orange disc through the smog but visibility had improved
markedly, a slight breeze blew and fewer people wore face

"It was really gloomy yesterday but today it's much
clearer," said port worker Sulaiman Saad, 50. "Insyallah (God
willing), things will improve."

The haze crisis has threatened public health in parts of
the Malaysian peninsula, which is just a short ferry ride from
the Indonesian island of Sumatra where forest fires are raging,
sending plumes of smoke into Malaysia's wealthiest state.

Asthma attacks have soared and face masks have become the
capital's hottest seller. The haze has also threatened the
country's tourism industry at an important time when
big-spending Middle East visitors flock to the mainly Muslim

Air-pollution readings have yet to match the dangerous
levels of 1997 when mainly Indonesian forest fires blotted out
skies across Southeast Asia, sending tourism into a nose-dive,
and cities like Singapore and even many parts of peninsular
Malaysia, including most beach resorts, have been spared this

But the haze has forced hundreds of schools to close in and
around the capital and also hit some key industrial sites,
forcing Port Klang, Malaysia's biggest container port, and an
airport close to Kuala Lumpur to close for several hours.

Fears of a prolonged crisis have hit parts of the stock
market, with shares in Malaysia's two major airlines, Malaysian
Airline System Bhd and AirAsia Bhd, falling 3.8 percent and 5.7
percent, respectively, this week.


Light rain fell in parts of central Malaysia overnight on
Thursday, clearing some smog, and a forecast change in
prevailing south-westerly winds could also help, Malaysia's
weather bureau said on Friday, but it warned the relief could
be temporary.

"The forest fires are still on so the (improved) visibility
could be temporary only," said Kang Thean Shong, director of
the Malaysian Meteorological Service's central forecast office.

In the two emergency areas, the government can order
closure of state and private-sector offices, but essential
services, such as markets, clinics and hospitals, will stay

The government can also limit the use of private vehicles
and ban open bonfires, but haze emergencies do not involve
curfews or handing power to the police or military, officials

Subang airport, where government planes, freight planes and
private jets were grounded during Thursday's closure, was open
again on Friday as visibility improved to 2,000-2,500 metres
(1.2-1.6 miles) compared with less than 300 metres on Thursday

Port Klang operators said they were operating as usual on
Friday. "Everything is normal now," said an official with
Northport, one of two Port Klang operators.

"We are open but the operations are a bit slow," said an
official at Westport, the other operator.

Northport had been closed for two hours on Thursday and
three hours of Wednesday amid official warnings to ships to
take care in the Strait of Malacca, one of the world's busiest
sea lanes which separates Sumatra from peninsular Malaysia.