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Thursday, August 5, 1999 Published at 17:47 GMT 18:47 UK

World: Asia-Pacific

Sumatra haze 'as bad as 1997'

The slash and burn approach to land clearance remains the problem

Reports from Indonesia say that haze caused by burning forests on the island of Sumatra has disrupted local air traffic and prompted health warnings.

Officials in Riau province have urged people to stay indoors and those venturing out have been wearing masks - as they did during the last haze crisis in 1997.

The skies over the main city of Pekanbaru have been darkened by the smog for several days, reducing visibility to a few hundred metres and pushing pollution levels repeatedly above the official danger mark.

Visibility at the city's Simpang Tiga airport was fluctuating between 500 metres and 1,200 metres, air traffic controllers said.

[ image: Levels of haze are on the increase in Singapore]
Levels of haze are on the increase in Singapore
"It appears to be the same pattern as in the past days, thick smoke in the morning until around 9am then it gradually thinning out the rest of the day," a spokesman for the local meterological office said.

A leading Indonesian environmental group blamed the timber industry for starting new fires.

"People have continued to conduct land clearing with burning method because it is cheap and fast," said Longgena Ginting of Indonesia's leading environmental watchdog, Walhi.

'Air smells of smoke'

Residents said the atmospheric conditions were as bad as those in 1997 when a choking haze blanketed the region for months.

"I have told both my children to stay at home after school as the air is beginning to smell of smoke," one woman told reporters.

[ image: Kuala Lumpur is similarly affected]
Kuala Lumpur is similarly affected
The haze has broken the Air Pollution Standard Index (ISPU) danger level of 301, according to the Riau province Environmental Impact Agency.

"On July 27 the ISPU level was recorded at 978," an Agency official was quoted as saying. "That is extremely dangerous. On Tuesday it was at 364, and on Monday it was at 568."

Satellite tracking is showing between 200 and 450 hot spots, indicating forest fires are burning on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra.

Meteorologists in Singapore have warned of air pollution levels verging on the unhealthy, and officials in Malaysia have confirmed the presence of haze in many parts of the country.

No data

The Malaysian authorities stopped publishing the pollution levels as concern grew that the haze might be coming back.

The country's environment minister accused the foreign media of using air pollution to scare away tourists.

In 1997, the region lost billions of dollars in tourism revenues, but correspondents say the situation this year has not yet reached those levels.

Earlier this month, south-east Asian countries announced an urgent plan to stop the man-made fires.

But many environmentalists fear Indonesia will be unable to enforce the plan at a time of political and economic uncertainty.

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