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Friday, February 13, 1998 Published at 07:20 GMT

World: Asia-Pacific

New smog threat as Indonesia bush fires spread

Forest fires are reported to be spreading out of control once more, in Kalimantan in the Indonesian part of the island of Borneo.

The resurgence of the bush and forest fires has raised fears that South-east Asia could soon be blanketed by another smoke haze.

International experts say the Indonesian government does not have the people and equipment to put the fires out, and only rain expected in May will be sufficient to do the job.

If the fires continue in Kalimantan and hotspots flare up in Sumatra, then Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore, southern Thailand and the Philippines could see a repeat of the severe air pollution which blotted out the sun at the end of last year.

[ image: Smog engulfed much of Asia last year]
Smog engulfed much of Asia last year
The smog, which is caused by fire, drought and wind, could be a disaster for a regional economy already battered by a currency and banking crisis, say economists.

Three months of choking, yellow smog between September and November caused a dramatic fall in visitors to the region, official figures show, and the impact on the economies from lost working days from sickness is only just being calculated.

"We could be in for a repeat of last year if the fires keep burning," said Steve Tamplin, from the World Health Organisation in Manila.

Nearly 500 separate forest fires are reported to be burning in Kalimantan, many of them started by farmers clearing bush for crops.

[ image: Large increase in recent bush fires reported]
Large increase in recent bush fires reported
This process has been happening on a small scale for decades but over the past few years land clearance has accelerated.

Drought, made worse by the recent El Nino weather pattern that has parched crops across Asia, has helped spread the fires.

Most land clearance happens in Indonesia's dry season, which, unfortunately, is when the wind tends to blow north towards its south-east Asian neighbours.

[ image: Many working days lost to respiratory complaints]
Many working days lost to respiratory complaints
Woon Shih Lai, director of the Meteorological Service Singapore, says the air over Singapore, Malaysia and other south-east Asian states should be clear until the end of March, but air pollution will then worsen. Mr Woon said thin smoke might even reach Australia.

"At this stage the fires are affecting Indonesia itself," he said. "But if the fires continue and the wind changes, those down winds might be affected."

Smog nightmare

Criticism of a slow response by governments to the smog pollution last year prompted several regional initiatives which scientists say may speed up firefighting efforts.

But controlling fires once they have taken hold is difficult, particularly if, as in 1997, the fires catch hold of underground seams of peat.

"Firefighters couldn't do very much to contain the fires once they got started," said Mr Tamplin.

A new pall of smog would be a nightmare for crisis-hit south-east Asia. The Singapore Tourist Board expects tourism to drop by up to 10% this year even without air pollution.

Prolonged smog would mean emptier hotels, shops, restaurants and aircraft, but full doctors' surgeries and fewer people at work if respiratory ailments soar.


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