SHAH ALAM/JAKARTA (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK, ASSOCIATED PRESS) - At least four schools in Peninsular Malaysia were forced to close on Thursday (Sept 12) due to very unhealthy Air Pollution Index (API) readings, blamed on smoke drifting in from forest fires in Indonesia.
Several areas in Malaysia, especially on the west coast of the peninsula and west Sarawak, have been shrouded in smoke over the past week as a result of the haze.
The closures of three schools in Johan Setia, Klang, are in line with an education ministry circular that requires a school to close when the API reading in the area breaches the 200 mark, the Selangor Education Department said. An API reading between 101 and 200 signals unhealthy air, while the very unhealthy range is 201-300.
The schools affected in Klang are Sekolah Kebangsaan (SK) Johan Setia, SK Jalan Kebun and Sekolah Menengah Kebangsaan Jalan Kebun, the Bernama news agency reported.
Air quality in Pahang moved into the unhealthy range last night, prompting the administration of the school SK Rompin in Kuala Rompin to tell students to stay away on Thursday.
The school said the resumption of classes on Friday (Sept 13) would depend on the API reading on Thursday, The Star reported. As at 2pm on Thursday, the API reading in Rompin had fallen to 82 within the moderate range.
In Penang, the state government has directed schools and sports organisations to stop all outdoor activities after API reading in the south of the island in Balik Pulau hit 137 on Thursday.
State Environment Committee chairman Phee Boon Poh said 100,000 face masks would be issued immediately through state assemblymen.
"Priority will be for schools on the island as the mainland's API readings are below the critical level," he said at a press conference in the presence of Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow and state health committee chairman Dr Afif Bahardin in Komtar.
Mr Phee said the state would also come down hard on those who carried out open burning by imposing the maximum fine of RM500,000 (S$164,920). He said schools would remain open for now unless the situation worsened.
On Tuesday, hundreds of schools in eastern Sarawak state bordering Indonesia's Kalimantan province were closed for a day after air quality spiked to unhealthy levels.
The Malaysian Meteorological Department said on Thursday it is now conducting cloud-seeding exercises in Sarawak in an effort to combat the haze. MetMalaysia director-general Jailan Simon said the cloud-seeding was being conducted in Sri Aman, Kuching and Samarahan to help induce rain in affected areas on Thursday.
"Our staff and the Royal Malaysian Air Force will be doing it from Labuan, " he said when contacted. Asked if similar measures would be carried out in the Peninsula, Jailan said such a move would depend on weather conditions.
Meanwhile, the King has advised everyone to reduce outdoor activities, drink more water and stop open burning to counter the effects of the worsening haze.
King Sultan Abdullah Ri'ayatuddin expressed his concern over the air pollution index in a statement released by Comptroller of the Royal Household Ahmad Fadil Shamsuddin.
"The King advised the people to be aware of the air quality and take preventive measures to lower the health effects of the haze," said the statement. "All landowners must ensure their lands or premises are not encroached to conduct open burning by irresponsible individuals," it added.
Massive jungle areas in Indonesia's Sumatra and Borneo islands are ablaze as thousands of personnel battle to quell the fires, frequently started to clear land for crop plantations. Schools in most parts of Sumatra have also been shut to protect children from the thick, noxious haze .
A total of 1,619 hotspots were detected in Sumatra and Kalimantan in Borneo, according to the Asean Specialised Meteorological Centre on Thursday.
The haze is an annual problem for Southeast Asia. Record Indonesian forest fires in 2015 spread haze across a swath of South-east Asia, including Singapore, and according to a study by Harvard and Columbia universities, hastened 100,000 deaths.
The fires are often started by smallholders and plantation owners to clear land for planting. Many areas of Indonesia are prone to rapid burning because of the draining of swampy peatland forests for pulp wood and palm oil plantations.