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Haze returns to Kuala Lumpur – but not because of Indonesian fires

  • Malaysians are experiencing a damaging heatwave and drought.
  • Indonesia’s Sumatra saw a spike in hotspots last week, but the number has dropped in recent days.
  • Singapore issued notices to six more companies under its Transboundary Haze Law.

A major heatwave caused by the ongoing El Niño weather phenomenon continued across Malaysia this week after fires and haze pollution damaged air quality and sent temperatures soaring as high as 39 degrees Celsius.

Several of Malaysia’s states have closed schools and rationed water in recent weeks after the mercury jumped to record levels. Dry conditions have encouraged fires to spread and forced many farmers to delay rice planting, which is already at least a month late in Malaysia’s largest rice-producing state, Kedah.

The government said this week that it believed the record-high temperatures could extend through September, and warned Malaysians to conserve water and prepare for poor air quality during the inter-monsoon season, which begins next month.

“This will cause water reserves at dams to deplete,” science minister Wilfred Madius Tangau told Malaysian state media. “The winds from Sumatra will carry hot air and haze [to Malaysia] between May and September.”

Six dams across Malaysia are already holding less than half the normal water levels, according to the Malaysian environment ministry. Water levels in the Linggiu Reservoir, which provides the city state of Singapore with half its potable water, have dropped to historic lows of 35%.

Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand are hoping that the land reforms gradually being brought in by Indonesian president Joko “Jokowi” Widodo will show tangible results as soon as this year. Last year, haze from wildfires in Sumatra drifted as far as Phuket island, damaging Thailand’s tourism industry, while clouds of smoke from both Kalimantan and Sumatra closed schools in Malaysia.

Malaysian schoolboys wear facemasks with Kuala Lumpur affected by haze pollution in 2012. Photo by Firdaus Latif/Wikimedia Commons

In Indonesia, more than half a million people were made sick by toxic smoke that lingered for months over provinces in Kalimantan, Papua and Sumatra.

On April 21, Indonesia’s meteorology agency recorded 46 hotspots in Sumatra, though the number has declined steadily in recent days and only two hotspots remained at 4pm on Tuesday.

Air quality was in the “moderate” range in Singapore on Tuesday, the second best among five classifications, but minor haze from northern Southeast Asia will continue to present risks to the city state in the coming weeks, the environment agency said.

A carbon-rich peatland planted with oil palm burns in Sumatra in 2015. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Separately, Singapore’s environment minister Masagos Zulkifli announced last week the city state had issued notices to six Indonesian plantation firms under its transboundary pollution law. The companies are now required to provide details of the measures taken to reduce the risks of fires on their concessions.

The minister said one company director had been served with the notice after arriving in Singapore.

“He has left but he is required to return,” Masagos said. “Should he not return, he will have violated our law and therefore, among others, we can arrest him upon entry.”