August 12, 2005

Malaysians pray for rain to end haze crisis

By Bazuki Muhammad and Ade Rina

PORT KLANG, Malaysia/JAKARTA (Reuters) - Malaysians prayed
for rain on Friday and a quick end to the country's worst
pollution crisis in eight years as residents choked on acrid
forest-fire smoke blowing in from neighboring Indonesia.

As the call to prayers echoed from mosques around the
mainly Muslim country, the premier called for Muslims,
Christians, Buddhists and Hindus to seek divine intervention to
wash the skies of a week-long haze that has threatened public

"When something like this happens, we have to ask for God's
help," Abdullah Ahmad Badawi was quoted as saying in
Malay-language newspaper Utusan Malaysia on Friday.

The haze eased on Friday, with air-pollution readings
falling in two areas declared emergency zones on Thursday,
though there were still six districts where the air was classed
as hazardous.

The haze has sent asthma attacks soaring, forced schools to
close, grounded some flights and disrupted shipping. But a
weather forecaster said on Friday prevailing winds that have
sent forest-fire smoke over the peninsula may only be shifting

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


Mokhtar Wahab, imam at Kuala Selangor mosque, led prayers
on Friday. "I urge all sections of society to control
activities that can cause damage to the environment," he told

Sore throats and red eyes are commonplace and face masks
are 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 country.

In Sumatra, a short ferry ride away from peninsular
Malaysia, fires still raged, some of them deep in thick forests
more than a day's journey away without helicopters, said a
local police chief at Rokan Hilir, where about 5,000 acres

are estimated by a forestry official to be on fire.

"We can't tackle the fire alone if we don't get any aid
from other parties," Yusman, an official with the Rokan Hilir
Forestry Department, told Reuters.

Malaysia plans to send 100 firefighters to Sumatra to help
Indonesia douse the flames.

Air pollution in Malaysia has yet to match the levels of
1997, when mainly Indonesian fires blotted out skies across
Southeast Asia. Singapore and many parts of peninsular
Malaysia, including beach resorts, have been spared so far this


But the haze has forced hundreds of schools to close in and
around the Malaysian capital and also hit some key industrial
sites this week, forcing Port Klang and an airport close to
Kuala Lumpur to close for several hours.

Given Southeast Asia's perennial haze problem, both
Indonesia and Malaysia spoke of the need for prevention and
quick regional responses. Forest fires are often started in the
dry season by farmers and plantation owners to expand their
land holdings.

Fears of a prolonged haze season have hurt shares in
Malaysia's two main airlines and main airports operator. Work
on eight government construction projects in the two emergency
areas has also been suspended, local media said on Friday.

In these two areas, the government can order closure of
state and private-sector offices, but essential services, such
as markets, clinics and hospitals, will stay open. It can also
limit the use of private vehicles and ban open bonfires.