Motorists make their way through a town covered with a thick haze in Muar, northwestern Johor, Malaysia, on 22 June 2013.  Malaysian authorities are declaring a state of emergency in the southern district of Muar where a smoky haze blamed on Indonesian forest fires has triggered one of the country's worst pollution levels. Photo: AP

By Manirajan Ramasamy, Sharon Chen, and Yoga Rusmana; Editing by Stanley James
23 June 2013

(Bloomberg) – Malaysia declared a state of emergency in some areas after air pollution from illegal burning of forests and peat lands in Indonesia reached hazardous levels, while Singapore breathed easier as winds shifted direction.

Prime Minister Najib Razak signed a declaration for Muar and Ledang districts in the southern Johor state with immediate effect after the Air Pollution Index readings reached more than 750, according to a statement today by G. Palanivel, minister for natural resources and environment. Any level above 300 is considered hazardous. Johor borders Singapore.

“There should be no outdoor activities and people must stay indoors until further notice in these areas,” Palanivel said in the statement. Muar was the worst affected as of 11 a.m. local time, with the index at 690, according the Department of Environment’s website, and pollution was also at a “hazardous” level in Malacca. Cloud seeding to induce rain will be carried out in the worst-hit areas and schools in Kuala Lumpur and some other areas closed tomorrow, the minister said.

Schools in Singapore canceled activities for the June vacation and stores ran out of protective masks as smoky haze hit dangerous levels, causing a spat with Indonesia over responsibility. Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has asked Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to provide evidence if Singaporean or Malaysian companies were responsible for the burning, as suggested by some Indonesian officials.

Singapore yesterday sought “strong, firm, effective” action against local companies that may be involved in illegal burning in Indonesia that led to the city-state’s worst pollution on record.

“I’ve asked the Attorney General to consider what is it that we can do in Singapore if such companies can be proved to have contributed in some way,” Singapore Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam told reporters yesterday in the city. “We will do everything that we can do. We will offer no succor or refuge if the actions of the companies have indeed been illegal in Indonesia and impacted on Singapore.”

Singapore’s Pollutant Standards Index was at 77 at 4 p.m. local time today, after rising as high as 326 yesterday, according to the National Environment Agency. It reached a record 401 on 21 June 2013.

“The improvement in the air quality is due to a change in the direction of the low level winds over Singapore, from South-westerly to southerly, since last night,” according to a statement posted on the NEA’s website. The agency advised people with lung or heart disease to avoid all outdoor activity, while prolonged or strenuous outdoor physical exertion should be minimized by everyone.

There are 17 timber and 15 palm oil companies, including Singapore-listed Wilmar International Ltd. (WIL), Kuala Lumpur-based Sime Darby Bhd (SIME) and Singapore-based Asia Pacific Resources International Ltd., which have land in areas hit by fires in Sumatra, T. Nirarta Samadhi, an Indonesian government spokesman, said in an e-mail on June 21, citing data from the non-governmental organization World Resources Institute. […]

Greenpeace International said its analysis of NASA data in Sumatra showed hundreds of hotspots in palm oil concessions that are owned by Indonesian, Malaysian, and Singaporean companies. The non-governmental organization called on Sime Darby and Wilmar to check whether their suppliers are involved in the burning, according to an e-mailed statement yesterday. […]

Singapore’s Lee said the fires were caused by errant companies and probably not smallholders slashing and burning.

“This is not slash-and-burn,” Shanmugam said yesterday. “This is not an act of nature by itself. These are actions by companies for commercial profit,” he said, adding that Singapore is relying on Indonesia to provide evidence. […]

Officials had detected 60 hot spots in the Riau region of Sumatra, Nugroho said earlier, with 80 percent of those in plantations and 20 percent in forests. Singapore has provided satellite data to help identify the companies responsible for the fires.

Indonesia declared a state of emergency in Riau starting June 21 as the haze worsened, the Jakarta Post said yesterday, citing Tri Budiarto, an emergency response director. [more]

Malaysia Imposes Emergency in Haze Areas; Singapore Improves



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