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Wednesday, April 28, 1999 Published at 07:53 GMT 08:53 UK

World: Asia-Pacific

Return of Asian haze warning

Smog from the 1997 fires made 20 million people ill

Indonesia has warned that an environmental disaster, which left large parts of South East Asia blanketed in smoke haze last year, may be repeated.

Singapore Correspondent David Willis: "Indonesia warns of repeat disatser"
Professor Haryono Suyono, who heads the Indonesian disaster relief team, told Singapore's Straits Times, that his country needed outside help in fighting the problem.

The haze is caused by farmers illegally setting fire to land in order to clear it.

Prof Suyono said previous fires had heightened soil erosion and made affected areas more prone to fires.

[ image: Thick air pollution shrouded the Kuala Lumpur skyline last year]
Thick air pollution shrouded the Kuala Lumpur skyline last year
The problem is being compounded by a longer dry season than in previous years, which threatens to turn small fires into big ones.

Prof Suyono said Indonesia lacked funds to monitor the problem and that the current climate of 'reform' in Indonesia meant that people were not afraid to defy laws prohibiting the clearing of land.

Indonesia, the fourth most populous country in the world, has been racked by social unrest since its economy foundered in the wake of Asia's economic crisis.

In some areas where it is known that forest fires have started once again, the authorities are already fully stretched trying to quell sectarian violence.

David Willis recounts the 1998 haze
Environment ministers from neighbouring Asian nations have given Indonesia just over two months to implement a "zero burning policy", but they know there is little they can do if the country fails this test of its resolve.

As well as the environmental damage that would be caused by a return of the haze, they are worried the fires will once again blight tourism and further damage the region's ailing economies.

Last year the fires destroyed more than 3,000 acres of land and were blamed for a string of accidents, including a plane crash.

Smog caused by Indonesian fires blanketed neighbouring Singapore and Malaysia and threatened the Comonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur.

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