Southeast Asia Braces for Haze as Forest Fires Keep Burning

(Bloomberg) -- Governments in Southeast Asia are taking steps to guard against a potential deterioration in pollution levels from Indonesian forest fires, as smoke and ash continue to blanket the skies over the region.

While Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and President Joko Widodo struck a cordial tone with each other -- Mahathir wrote a letter to Jokowi, as Widodo is known, offering help to put out the forest fires -- the two countries’ environment ministers took a less amiable tone, laying blame on each others’ countries for the haze.

Indonesian forestry minister Siti Nurbaya said Malaysia was not being transparent about its own forest fires, while Malaysian environment minister Yeo Bee Yin said on Facebook Wednesday that “Minister Siti Nurbaya should not be in denial,” as she pointed to ASEAN Specialized Meteorological Center data showing Indonesian hotspots.

Singapore’s Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources said the country has offered technical firefighting assistance to Indonesia and is prepared to deploy them if requested by Indonesia. Meanwhile, Malaysian authorities undertook cloud seeding efforts in the states of Sarawak and Selangor.

Jokowi said in August he’d fire officials failing to tackle forest fires in an attempt to avoid a repeat of 2015’s haze where 2.6 million hectares of land was affected, costing the country 221 trillion rupiah ($15.5 billion) in economic losses.

Here is a snapshot of damages and costs so far:

  • Already, the fires have displaced 160 indigenous peoples and claimed two lives, according to local Indonesian reports, and left another 32,000 in South Sumatra with respiratory infections, said a separate report, citing the local health department.
  • Flights to and from Palembang and Pontianak were experiencing delays due to limited visibility, said Citilink Indonesia spokeswoman Fariza Astriny. Overall operations, however, remained normal and no flights were canceled.
  • Just outside Kuala Lumpur in Selangor, authorities have shut 29 schools, affecting more than 45,000 students as the air quality reached unhealthy levels -- more than 200 on the Air Pollution Index, a composite measure of five types of pollutants, said Chief Minister Amirudin Shari.
  • In Singapore, as students head back to school next Monday after a week-long break, schools have issued advisories to parents outlining precautions they are taking to mitigate students’ exposure to the haze.
  • Households in the city-state are expected to spend an extra S$15 million ($11 million) on water and electricity should the haze come in full force and the Pollutant Standards Index readings double, said Sumit Agarwal, a professor at the National University of Singapore Business School.
  • The haze is also likely to impact tourism, said Agarwal. A doubling of PSI readings would lead to hotel revenues falling by an estimated S$280,000 ($204,000). “We observe risk avoidance behaviors not only among locals but also in foreigners who avoid visits to Singapore and other haze-affected cities in this region,” he said.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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