August 12, 2005

Malaysia takes a breather as haze crisis eases

By Bazuki Muhammad and Ade Rina

KUALA SELANGOR, Malaysia/JAKARTA (Reuters) - Malaysia got a
short breathing space on Friday from its worst air pollution
crisis in eight years as changing winds scattered acrid smoke
from forest fires burning in neighboring Indonesia.

The skies cleared over downtown Kuala Lumpur's iconic
Petronas Towers and palm trees shivered in breezes that carried
away some of the haze that has shrouded the city for a week,
although weather officials warned that the respite might only
be brief.

"We do believe there will be a temporary relief," said Wong
Teck Kiong of the Malaysian Meteorological Service.

Rain promised to bring more relief over the weekend, as the
wind carried the haze away from central Malaysia toward the
country's eastern states of Trengganu and Kelantan, where
visibility had fallen sharply, he said.

Malaysians flocked to Friday prayers at mosques around the
country to pray for a quick end to the crisis. The prime
minister urged citizens of all faiths to beg for divine
intervention to banish the 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 the
Malay-language newspaper Utusan Malaysia on Friday.

Air pollution readings fell on Friday in two areas declared
emergency zones on Thursday, though there were still six
districts where the air was classed as hazardous.

Abdullah paved the way for the removal of emergency
measures, saying they could be dropped if the pollution
readings fell below the 500 level that triggered the emergency.

The haze has sent asthma attacks soaring, forced hundreds
of schools to close, grounded some flights and disrupted


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 a time when big-spending
Middle East visitors usually flock to the 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.

"Last night personnel from the forest department arrived at
the location of the fire," Indonesia's national police chief,
Sutanto, told reporters in Jakarta. "Yesterday we have been
looking for hotspots by helicopter. We found 200 hotspots in
North Sumatra (province), especially in South Tapanuli, and
around 400 in Riau (province)."

Air pollution in Malaysia has yet to reach 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 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. But
with the haze so far limited to a few areas, it was unlikely to
have a major impact on the economy, Bernama quoted economic
planning minister Mustapha Mohamed as saying.

Work on eight government construction projects in the two
emergency areas has also been suspended, Bernama reported.

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.