There is no exception to human error when the health of the whole region comes under siege annually due to the clearing of land by palm oil and timber companies in Indonesia. So far, eight concessionaires have been identified by the Indonesian Environment Minister and National Disaster Mitigation Board, Balthasar Kambuaya.
An environmental group known as Greenpeace claim that these plantations belong to Indonesian, Malaysian and Singaporean conglomerates. The forest fire are said to originate from Riau and Jambi, the eastern side of Central Sumatra. Based on reports by the NOAA satellite, there are currently 227 hotspots and it is expected to continue burning well into the following month due to the high temperature and dry weather.
Efforts for cloud-seeding in the region have borne little results as clouds do not form over the hotspots. It is also impossible to trace clouds through the satellite imagery because of the thick haze. The most recent cloud-seeding operation which was carried out on Sunday triggered half an hour of rain in the Dumai district of Riau province. However, this did not prevent new hotspots from emerging. This highly technical operation involves dumping iodized salt onto dense clouds to help induce rain.
When the westerly monsoon winds start blowing in June, the haze gets carried into Malaysia and Singapore.
The alarming Air Pollution Index and poor visibility have prompted an emergency call for schools to shut down in several states in Malaysia, since Monday. The burning, which started on June 11 poses a health threat and is potentially life-threatening especially for children, the elderly and those already with cardiac and respiratory problems like asthma. Ordinary face masks do not help much as the smog molecules are smaller than what the masks filter. The haze consists of tiny particles measuring 2.5 microns in diameter or smaller.
Although citizens are encouraged to purchase N95 respirator masks, it is also not advisable to provide the N95 masks to those categorized as vulnerable as the mask causes the lungs to work harder and requires more effort to breath. Experts caution against providing the elderly, pregnant women, those below 15 years of age and those with chronic respiratory and cardiac diseases with N95. According to NIOSH, the agency responsible for the N95 rating, these masks are supposed to filter out 95% of airborne particles.
In spite of recurring occurrences together with two especially bad episodes of haze, one in 1997 and another in 2005, not much has been done by the authorities. This had however, prompted an agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution, signed by the ASEAN countries in 2002, to monitor and combat pollution caused by forest fires.
Regionally, neighbouring countries are pressuring Indonesia for a solution. So far, no companies have been fined or taken action against. Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono publicly apologized to Singapore and Malaysia today for the illegal raging fire that caused the air pollution hitting hazardous levels.
"As the president of Indonesia, I apologize for what has happened and ask for the understanding of the people of Malaysia and Singapore," Mr Yudhoyono said. "We accept it is our responsibility to tackle the problem."
He also sought for understanding from Singapore and Malaysia over the problem.
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Where there is haze, there is fire link to MSN