Officials hand out face masks whilst southern Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore choke

Woman wearing mask whilst outdoor in Southern Thailand

The annual haze from intentionally lit forest fires in Indonesia is making life unpleasant in parts of Thailand’s South, with fine-dust readings (PM2.5 microns) in Songkhla and Satun at hazardous levels, over 50 microgrammes per cubic metre of air. The problem is also choking sections of Malaysia and Singapore.

In Hat Yai, Songkhla, officials are handing out face masks to residents and tourists.

The Region 16 Environmental Office in Songkhla province on Friday reported the level of PM2.5 at 54 mg per cubic metre, which exceeded the safe threshold, set set by the World Health Organisation, of 50 mg. Satun was also above 50, but other provinces remained in the safe zone. The situation changes daily as the winds and weather change. With the south-westerly monsoon sweeping winds in from the Indian ocean, smoke from the Indonesian fires are now polluting Singapore and Malaysia as well.

The Region 16 office in Songkhla is advising people in Hat Yai to wear proper masks for outdoor activities, and immediately consult doctors if they have breathing problems.

(The flimsy paper face masks bought from pharmacies for a few baht do NOTHING to protect the wearers)

Meanwhile, hundreds held a mass prayer for rain in a smoke-filled Indonesian city Pekanbaru residents on Sumatra yesterday, desperately hoping that downpours will extinguish forest fires and wash away toxic haze covering wide swathes of the country that has forced mass school closures.

Illegal fires to clear land for farming are raging on Indonesia’s Sumatra and Borneo islands with firefighters battling round the clock through charred forests, and water-bombing helicopters deployed to douse the flames.

Dense smoke has blanketed Pekanbaru, a provincial capital on Sumatra, leaving the sky dark even at midday and residents fearing for their health.

Around 1,000 Pekanbaru residents – many dressed in white Muslim robes with rudimentary face masks –  held a prayer Friday in an open field as a thick, acrid fog drifted around them.

“I’m praying so that the rain will come immediately and this smog will be gone soon,” said retired 57-year-old civil servant Rahmad, who goes by one name.

“It’s been really bad for the past month — I can’t breathe if I don’t wear a mask. Some of my neighbours have gotten really sick,” he told AFP.

Friday is a holy day in Indonesia, the world’s biggest Muslim-majority country, where forest fires are an annual problem but have been worsened this year by particularly dry weather.

Fatimah El-Kareem, a 26 year old mother, fled Pekanbaru with her baby over health fears.

“I was so worried. My child is only one year old and still so vulnerable,” she told AFP by telephone from hometown in another part of Sumatra.

“The smog isn’t only suffocating, but it smells terrible… Every morning it was just getting worse and worse – you couldn’t get any fresh air,” she added.

International concern has been mounting about the long-term impact of such blazes, as rainforests play a vital role in protecting the planet against global warming.

The governor of smog-hit Central Kalimantan on Borneo island – which Indonesia shares with Malaysia and Brunei – said yesterday that nearly 3,900 schools would be closed temporarily to protect students, with more than 9,000 shuttered in Sumatra.

Officials across the border in Malaysia said dozens of schools would be closed on Friday in the region surrounding its haze-hit capital Kuala Lumpur.

Frictions spiked after Malaysian Environment Minister Yeo Bee Yin this week accused her Indonesian counterpart of being “in denial”, after Jakarta insisted fires in Malaysia had caused the smog there.

On Friday, Indonesia said it had sealed off dozens of plantations where smog-belching fires are blazing, and warned that owners, including Malaysia and Singapore-based firms, could face criminal charges if the investigation turns up evidence of illegal burning.

Jakarta is struggling to tame the blazes as many burn underground in carbon-rich peat, which has been cleared across vast areas of the country for plantations.

“I hope farmers and companies stop starting these fires,” Rahmad said in Pekanbaru. “It’s a man-made disaster.”

By Tanutam Thawan

Source: Agence France-Presse