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Title: Malaysia suspends classes as haze crisis worsens
Date: 11-Aug-2005
Category: Malaysia
Source/Author: Taiwan News (Taiwan)

Illegal land clearance, forest fires blamed for pollution

Schools suspended classes and people were urged to stay indoors as a noxious haze blamed on forest fires in neighboring Indonesia thickened yesterday to dangerous levels over Kuala Lumpur and surrounding towns.

"The situation is not getting better. It is getting worse," Environment Minister Adenan Satem told a news conference.

"The cabinet has also instructed me to go to Jakarta to meet our counterparts to identify long-term and short-term measures to fight the haze. We will try to go as soon as possible," he told a press conference.

An Environment Ministry statement said air quality in three places including Kuala Lumpur suburb Shah Alam had become hazardous. Putrajaya and Petaling Jaya were categorized as "very unhealthy" while five areas were shrouded in "unhealthy" air. 

Indonesia's efforts

Meanwhile, Indonesian meteorologists have blamed illegal land clearance by farmers on Sumatra island and Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo island, for causing the haze that has cloaked the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur and most of its surrounding areas for the past week.

Kusnadi, head of the provincial forest fire team, said the province had enough rangers to fight the fires but the problem persisted due to "ignorance" by local residents who continued clearing land with fires, and the remote locations of the blazes.

Forest fires and land clearance were also continuing in Sumatra's Riau province, which faces peninsular Malaysia, said Khairul Zaenal, head of the province's environmental impact agency.

He said sporadic fires were raging along about 80 kilometers of peatland near the border of Riau and North Sumatra provinces.

"We have so far deployed 14 teams to contain the fire. Each team consists of up to 15 men. We still do not have enough men because the fire continues to rage on," he said.

In Malaysia, hospitals reported a spurt in respiratory and eye ailments from the dust and smoke-laden white haze, causing red eyes, runny nose, wheezing coughs and sore throats.

Health Minister Chua Soi Lek urged people to drink more water, cut down outdoor activities, wear protective masks and to refrain from smoking.

Several schools in the suburbs of Kuala Lumpur scrapped classes and sent students home early, telling them to remain indoors. Education Minister Hishamuddin Hussein said schools could suspend classes at their discretion.

Kuala Lumpur, swarming with big-spending Middle East tourists at this time of year, warned against traffic hazards after a ship ran aground at nearby Port Klang and prepared to declare an emergency in the worst-hit regions.

An airport close to the capital shut down for five hours, and the education ministry ordered schools in two badly affected areas near Kuala Lumpur to close for the rest of the week. Visibility at Kuala Lumpur International Airport was one kilometer but no flights were affected.

API figures

The minister also announced that the government had lifted an eight-year ban on releasing air pollution index figures, a measure designed to protect tourism which has been sharply criticised here.

Adenan said an emergency would be declared if the air pollution index, or API, rose above 500, and all schools would be closed if it rises above 400.

The index, which measures harmful particles in the air, was 410 in Port Klang, 327 in Kuala Selangor and 316 in Shah Alam. A reading of above 300 is considered hazardous.

Under the air quality index, less than 50 is good, 51-100 is moderate, 101-200 is unhealthy, 200-300 is very unhealthy and more than 300 is hazardous.

The Meteorology Department said no respite was expected until October when rains would help wash away the haze, a cocktail of dust, ash, sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide.

On Tuesday, the Malaysian government banned most forms of open burning, including camp fires and outdoor cooking. Vessels plying the Malacca Strait have been warned not to sail without navigational equipment.

Website (URL) http://www.etaiwannews.com/World/2005/08/11/1123725460.htm

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