Malaysia's haze worsens on Sunday, three districts around KL reach 'very unhealthy' level

Malaysians wear face masks as a thick haze hovers over Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on Sept 26, 2015.
Malaysians wear face masks as a thick haze hovers over Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on Sept 26, 2015.PHOTO: EPA

KUALA LUMPUR (AFP/Bloomberg) - Air quality in Malaysia's capital reached "very unhealthy" levels on Sunday (Sept 27) as acrid smoke billowing from Indonesian agricultural fires intensified, in a environmental crisis that is fraying regional tempers.

Pollution readings soared past the 200-point level on Sunday morning in the Malaysian government's hourly air-quality index, a threshold that triggers automatic school closures during weekdays.

As the haze built up in Malaysia on Saturday, an airport just outside the capital closed temporarily in the afternoon as visibility dropped to less then 300m.

The closure forced at least 20 flights to be cancelled, according to Malaysian media reports.

Air quality in Port Klang, Shah Alam and Batu Muda, areas surrounding Kuala Lumpur, worsened to "very unhealthy" levels as of 8am local time, according to data posted on the Malaysian Department of Environment website.

The Air Pollutant Index recorded unhealthy levels in 16 districts across Malaysia, including some areas in Sarawak. The readings ranged between 224 and 243 in the three Kuala Lumpur districts, the department said.

Parts of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore have been shrouded for weeks in a choking smoke haze from tinder-dry parts of Indonesia's Sumatra island.

The haze crisis - the worst since mid-2013 - grips the region nearly every year during the dry season, when agricultural land is illegally cleared by burning.

Indonesia has faced pressure from its neighbours to address the problem since it first emerged about 20 years ago.

But the issue has persisted, especially as plantations have expanded, driven in large part by rising global demand for palm oil, a key ingredient in a vast range of everyday consumer products.

Malaysian skies have been a smoky grey for most of the past month, and the authorities on Sept 15 ordered schools closed in Kuala Lumpur and neighbouring states.

The Indonesian authorities have indicated the problem may not clear up anytime soon.

National Disaster Management Agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho said last Saturday that "fires continue to rage" despite a push to extinguish the blazes on farm expanses and peatlands that has included the deployment of military personnel.

He said new fires were cropping up, while those that were previously extinguished had re-emerged in peatlands or had been deliberately reignited.

He added that pollution readings in several Indonesian cities were at hazardous levels, and that nearly 168,000 people in affected areas has sought medical treatment for respiratory problems.

Indonesia earlier declared a state of emergency in Sumatra's hard-hit Riau province.

Tens of thousands of people in smoke-choked regions of Sumatra and Borneo island have fallen ill from the haze, which also has caused sporadic flight delays or cancellations.