Sumatra Forest Fires Cause Worst Singapore Smog for 16 Years

Forest fires on the Indonesian island of Sumatra shrouded Singapore and Malaysia in smog for a fifth day, leading to an advisory asking people to stay indoors.

Singapore’s National Environment Agency said its pollution index eased to a “moderate” 82 by 6 p.m., after rising to an “unhealthy” 152 late on Monday, which was the worst level since 1997, according to The Straits Times newspaper. The reading for smaller PM2.5 particulates, linked to lung diseases, stayed above 149 micrograms per cubic meter, compared to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency safe standard of 12.

Malaysia’s Johor state registered readings above 100 on the country’s pollutant index at 5 p.m., according to the country’s Department of Environment. The Malay Peninsula has been plagued for decades by forest fires in Sumatra to the West and Kalimantan on Borneo island to the East.

“Reduce outdoor activity and drink a lot of water during this period,” Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak said in a Facebook post today, adding that the haze is expected to worsen in coming days.

The annual fires hit a peak in 1997, when the haze cost the economies of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore an estimated $3.5 billion, figures published by the Center for International Forestry Research in Bogor, Indonesia showed. The current smog could hurt the city-state’s services industry, according to Wai Ho Leong, an economist at Barclays Plc in Singapore.

Palm Plantations

Large tracts of peat lands around the coastal city of Dumai facing Singapore have caught fire, leading to the smog, according to The Straits Times, which cited Indonesian officials. Farmers are also burning plantations to clear land for the next sowing season, the report said. Indonesia is the world’s largest producer of palm oil.

“For too long, commercial interests in Indonesia have been allowed to over-ride environmental concerns,” Singapore’s Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, said in a Facebook post yesterday.

In a separate post today, Balakrishnan asked Indonesia’s Minister of Environment Balthasar Kambuaya to name the companies responsible for the fires and to publish maps of land ownership. “The combination of satellite photos, which are updated daily, and these concession maps would enable us to pinpoint the errant companies,” he added.

Singapore’s manpower ministry yesterday issued an advisory urging employers to minimize strenuous work outdoors.

At least 138 hot spots were detected over Sumatra, with hazy conditions expected to persist for the next few days, the NEA said yesterday. The fires typically occur during a dry season for the region from June to September, it said.

Pasir Gudang in Malaysia’s Johor recorded the highest reading of 148, according to the environment department’s 5 p.m. report today. Three of the four areas in Johor indicated levels above 100.

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