Malaysia shuts schools amid 'unhealthy' haze

A couple talk in the park on a hazy day in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on Oct 18, 2015. PHOTO: REUTERS

Malaysia is shutting down schools on Monday (Oct 19) in three states and several large districts around the country as the choking haze made a comeback above the "unhealthy" level.

The move came as fires burning over forests and peatlands in Sumatra and Kalimantan showed no sign of abating one week after multilateral firefighting efforts in Indonesia began.

Malaysia's Education Minister on Sunday told schools in Malacca, Negeri Sembilan and Selangor states to close on Monday, as the country's Air Pollutant Index exceeded 120 at 7pm on Sunday. Also told to shut were schools in Putrajaya and Kuala Lumpur, as well as in Kuching and Samarahan in Sarawak, and Tawau in Sabah.

This is the fourth time this year that the Education Ministry has been forced to shut schools due to the haze. But the Malaysian Higher Islamic Certificate exams and the vocational college exams this week will go ahead.

The Malaysia media reported on Sunday that the haze from fires in Kalimantan caused hundreds of people to be stranded at airports in Sabah as several flights were cancelled. "The passengers are restless and angry, but we have no choice because we can't fly in this hazy condition," a spokesman for Tawau airport was quoted as saying by The Star newspaper.

In Indonesia itself, almost half a million people have suffered from haze-related illnesses such as acute respiratory infections, or what the Indonesian health authorities refer to as ISPA.

"Our figures point to 425,377 cases of ISPA, although not all of them are being treated (in hospital) for infections," the country's Health Minister Nila Moeloek was quoting as saying in a Jakarta Post report on Saturday.

Air pollution levels continued to soar in Kalimantan and Sumatra, with the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) for the two worst-hit regions fluctuating between "very unhealthy" and "hazardous" at the weekend. At 8am on Sunday, the PSI for Palangkaraya in Central Kalimantan jumped off the charts in Indonesia's Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG) website, which has a maximum reading of 2,000 PSI.

An hour earlier, it read 1,939 PSI - a notch higher than the previous day's peak of 1,889 - but it later dropped to 560 PSI at 4pm. In Indonesia, any measurement above 350 is considered hazardous.

Meanwhile, the haze that covered Singapore's skies on Sunday is expected to persist on Monday due to winds carrying smoke from Sumatra. Air quality is forecast to be in the low- to mid-section of the unhealthy range, and may enter the high section if denser haze is blown in, the National Environment Agency (NEA) said .

The dry weather in Indonesia, exacerbated by an extended El Nino season, has made it harder to put out the fires, despite a multinational firefighting assistance team supporting Indonesia's efforts.

"With the persisting dry weather, we have not managed to put out the fires, therefore the number of hot spots in Kalimantan and Sumatra continues to fluctuate," Indonesian National Disaster Management Agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho told The Straits Times yesterday. "The fires have also spread beyond the six fire-prone provinces to East Kalimantan province."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 19, 2015, with the headline Malaysia shuts schools amid 'unhealthy' haze. Subscribe