A blanket of haze that forced Malaysian officials to close hundreds of schools was caused mainly by forest fires within that country while some of the dirty air could be blamed on Indonesia, an official in Jakarta said Tuesday.
Malaysian authorities ordered schools closed in Sarawak state on Borneo island, which is also home to several Indonesian provinces, after air quality there reached unhealthy levels because of haze they blamed on Indonesian fires. At least 409 schools were closed, affecting 157,479 students, according to the Sarawak State Education office.
Officials said 500,000 facemasks had been delivered to Sarawak, where the Air Pollutant Index (API) reached an unhealthy level of 201 on Tuesday morning. The API considers a level of 50 or below healthy.
Meanwhile, Indonesian Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar accused Malaysian authorities of not being transparent about their own forest fires.
“There is information that they refuse to reveal because the haze that entered is from Sarawak and the Peninsula of Malaysia, while some of it may have come from West Kalimantan,” Siti told reporters. “Therefore, they should make an objective explanation.”
Siti said she would contact the Malaysian ambassador in Jakarta to urge Indonesia’s neighbor to provide what she called “correct information.”
Satellite images on Sept. 4 and 5 showed a sharp increase in hot spots indicating fires in some areas across Southeast Asia, particularly in the Malay Peninsula and Vietnam, according to Dwikorita Karnawati, the head of Indonesia’s Meteorological, Geophysical and Climatological Agency. There were 1,423 hot spots on the Malay Peninsula on Sept. 7, from 1,038 the previous day, she said, adding that many hotspots were also detected in Sarawak.
Indonesia’s National Disaster Management Agency (BNPB) detected a combined 1,656 hotspots in the Sumatran provinces of Riau, Jambi and South Sumatra and the Bornean provinces of West, Central and South Kalimantan on Sept. 8.
BNPB said authorities had deployed 9,000 personnel to put out forest fires in six provinces on Sumatra and Kalimantan.
“We are deploying 37 helicopters to extinguish fires using water bombings and an aircraft in Riau to create artificial rain,” BNPB spokesman Agus Wibowo told BenarNews.
Haze reduced visibility to 800 meters (2,620 feet) in Pekanbaru, the capital of Indonesia’s Riau province on Sumatra island, local media reported Tuesday. Schools were closed in parts of the province and clinics saw an influx of patients complaining of respiratory problems.
Haze also forced two flights at Supadio airport in Pontianak, West Kalimantan province, to be cancelled on Monday, an airport official said.
At least 175 people and four companies were considered suspects linked to the forest fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan, national police spokesman Dedi Prasetyo said without naming the companies or individuals.
“Of those, 21 have been submitted to the prosecutor’s offices,” he told BenarNews.
Meanwhile, environmental activist group Walhi urged the government to review forestry and plantation licenses granted to companies.
Walhi executive director Nur Hidayati said Indonesia had not learned from previous forest fires.
“It is time for the government to reveal companies whose concessions caused fires,” Nur told BenarNews. “The number of permits granted by the government does not reflect the government’s capacity to supervise them.”
Earlier this year, environmental watchdog Greenpeace said plantation owners had failed to pay more than U.S. $1 billion in fines imposed by Indonesian courts in recent years for damages caused by agricultural fires and illegal logging.
The courts ruled for the government in 10 lawsuits against timber companies and palm oil plantation owners whose land clearing practices caused fires between 2012 and 2015, ordering them to pay fines totaling 2.7 trillion rupiah ($192.2 million), according to Greenpeace.
The watchdog said another lawsuit brought against a timber company over illegal logging carried out since 2004 resulted in a fine of 16.2 trillion rupiah ($1.1 billion).
Agricultural fires are an annual hazard in Indonesia and haze often affects neighboring Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand. Air pollution can reach hazardous levels, disrupting economic activity and forcing schools to close.
The Singapore National Environment Agency on Tuesday said the API could move into the unhealthy range if the haze persists or worsens, Channel News Asia reported. The Singapore government reported readings fell between 85 and 96 while readings between 101 and 200 are considered unhealthy.
A study by researchers from Harvard and Columbia universities found that more than 100,000 people in Southeast Asia likely died prematurely in 2015 as a result of agricultural fires in Indonesia. Researchers attributed the deaths to breathing high levels of carbon-based particulates.
In addition, at least 24 people were killed in forest fires in 2015, according to the Indonesian government. The World Bank estimated economic losses as a result of the fires at $16 billion (226 trillion rupiah).
Noah Lee in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.