When will we have to evacuate denver they way they may have to evacuate an
entire *state*? Comparing it to the '52 killer smog in London is a
beginning -- from here it will only get worse.
Sure, there may well be a 1b-2b population 'correction' from some disaster
or another by 2100 -- but would you want to live through it?
At what point will the world notice this story? when the currency collapses,
or the region goes into economic convulsions (already has)? or starts flooding
the US market with cheap exports to bolster the flagging promises of tiger
growth which keep the masses under the thumbs of chaebol and keiretsu and
outright organized-crime families? Where, indeed, can democracy grow if the
laws are as brazenly flaunted as this?
September 25, 1997
Southeast Asia Chokes as Indonesian Forests Burn
By SETH MYDANS
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia -- On the bad days, a milky
twilight settles over the city at noon, tall
buildings become ghostly shadows and people hurry along
the streets with surgical masks covering their mouths
Newspapers are filled with instructions: stay indoors,
drink plenty of fluids, wash often, stop smoking,
protect your children. There is a surprising and
not-unpleasant whiff of woodsmoke in the sluggish air.
Indeed, vast forest fires are burning out of control.
But they are hundreds of miles away in the jungles of
Indonesia, mostly on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo.
In one of the most widespread man-made disasters the
region has known, smoke from the fires has blanketed a
broad swath of Southeast Asia this month, in an
especially severe repeat of what has become a chronic
summer problem over the last few years. This September,
a choking haze is dimming the sun in Singapore, the
Philippines, Brunei and southern Thailand as well as
Indonesia and Malaysia.
Flights have been canceled and schools closed around the
region, the busy shipping lanes of the Strait of Malacca
have been disrupted by low visibility, and millions of
people are coughing and wheezing. It is impossible to
say just how many people have been made sick by the
smoke; the Indonesian government has traced two deaths
directly to it, however.
The fires are mostly intentionally set. Hundreds of
Indonesian and Malaysian companies -- mostly large
agricultural concerns -- and some with high-placed
government or military connections, are using fire as a
cheap and illegal means of land-clearing.
What is happening in Southeast Asia is different in kind
both from the smogs of an earlier time in the industrial
North and from the forest fires of North America, which
seldom have much impact on big population centers.
In the deliberate burning of rain forest, it resembles
the land-clearing fires that have ravaged large portions
of the Amazon, but the pall from those has affected
mostly rural areas.
In Malaysia and Indonesia, by contrast, urban pollution
is combining with smoke from the forest fires and being
compounded by yet a third element: El Nino, the powerful
weather-making ocean current that from time to time
upsets weather patterns around the world.
El Nino has returned this year in one of its most
intense incarnations of the 20th century, and one of its
early effects has been a drought in Indonesia that
experts expect to spread throughout the region,
including Australia. Some scientists suggest that the
dryness has made it more likely that spontaneously
occurring wildfires might be heightening the misery in
Indonesia and Malaysia.
Worst-hit so far is the Malaysian state of Sarawak, in
northwestern Borneo, where a state of emergency has been
declared and schools and businesses have closed as the
visibility has shrunk to arm's-length. If the air does
not clear soon, government officials say they may begin
evacuating some of the state's 1.9 million residents.
In urban areas, the haze is a combination of smoke from
the fires and emissions from factories and vehicles that
have become an increasing problem as cities grow in this
rapidly developing region.
Even without the wildfires, Kuala Lumpur's air quality
has been deteriorating as it modernizes, like that of
other cities in the region including Bangkok and
Gurmit Singh, who heads an environmental lobbying group
here, said the current disaster is a reminder that
unchecked development carries a cost. "This has been
getting worse and worse for more than 10 years, and this
is the worst in memory," said Singh, coughing with what
he said was a dry throat.
The immediate problem is widespread illegal burning of
vast tracts of jungle by agricultural development
companies as a cheap way of clearing land. A secondary
problem is created by fires set by slash-and-burn
farmers, who often travel deep into virgin jungle along
roads cut by loggers.
The burning began with the onset of the dry season in
June and by August Indonesia's neighbors began to feel
its effects, as they have for the last half-dozen years.
After the worst previous year, in 1994, Indonesia banned
forest burning, but its new law has been largely
ignored. Now both Indonesia and Malaysia are seeking to
identify and prosecute more than 100 companies that are
believed to be the worst offenders.
Once they are started, the fires have proven remarkably
difficult to bring under control, and President Suharto
of Indonesia has tendered his "most sincere apologies"
to his neighbors.
An extended dry season caused by the warm ocean currents
of the "El Nino" phenomenon has compounded the problem
in several ways. It makes the fires easier to start and
harder to put out, even as it causes an unfolding famine
in the highlands of Papua New Guinea and the neighboring
Indonesian province of Irian Jaya.
And it is delaying the onset -- perhaps for several
months -- of the autumn monsoon rains that are the only
sure way of dousing the wildfires. Indeed, officials say
the hot weather is causing new fires in the peat bogs
and barren tracts of logged land in Sumatra and Borneo.
The sustained air pollution here in Malaysia is well
beyond the experience of even the smoggiest cities in
the United States, environmental officials here said.
It is, instead, reminiscent of the soot-laden pea-soup
fogs that London experienced up through the 1950s, when
coal-burning was prevalent there. The worst of the smog
seasons in Britain, in 1952, was blamed for 4,000
deaths, and prompted passage of a British Clean Air Act
A United States Government scientist familiar with the
Malaysian situation said the smog-like haze there was
not quite so deadly as the infamous killer fog of 1952,
but that it nevertheless compared with some of the worst
London fogs of that era. In any case, said the
scientist, "this is very bad."
In the United States, warnings are issued when the
Pollution Standard Index -- a standard set by the
Environmental Protection Agency that measures carbon
dioxide, carbon monoxide, dust, ash, sulfur dioxide and
nitrogen dioxide -- rises above 100.
Here in Kuala Lumpur, the index has hovered near 200 for
weeks and has approached 300, or "very unhealthy."
according to the Malaysian government. In Sarawak the
index climbed to 839 on Tuesday -- far above the
"hazardous" level of 500 at which people are advised to
stay inside with doors and windows closed.
In Singapore the index reached a record level of 226 on
Thursday. People there reported that opera goers inside
the air-conditioned Victoria Concert Hall that night
could smell the thick smoke.
"You get a headache and you feel very sleepy in class,"
said Khavita Kaur, a Malaysian high school student who
wore a surgical mask below her white Islamic head scarf.
"And you can smell the smoke when you breathe, and your
Indonesian television today quoted experts as saying
that breathing the haze in badly affected areas was as
dangerous as smoking 80 cigarettes a day.
The persistent smog has begun to take a political toll
here in a country already battered by an economic
downturn. Reports about the haze have overshadowed
newspaper accounts of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's
denunciations of Western currency traders last week.
"Angered and distressed by the worsening haze,
Malaysians want the government to come out with more
effective measures," the daily newspaper Star said last
week, though it offered no suggestions.
And in an unusual public protest, 100 demonstrators
marched in a central square of the capital on Sunday,
chanting, "Immediate action! Immediate action!"
On the same day, Mahathir announced that he was sending
1,200 firefighters to Indonesia to help battle the
wildfires. And for local relief, the government said it
is studying plans to spray water from the tops of
buildings to cut the haze.
For many people here, none of these measures is enough;
their impulse is to flee.
Shazman, a waiter who like many Malaysians uses only one
name, said he had sent his two small children away from
the smoggy city to live with their grandparents.
And on weekends, like other people here, he said he
escapes to the beach. But he conceded that this relief
was an illusion. The beaches are smoggy too.