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Malaysia Issues Alert in Malacca Strait as Haze Worsens Across Region

Malaysia has issued a hazard warning for ships sailing in the Malacca Strait because of a thick haze from bush fires in Indonesia that is blanketing parts of the region, and cutting visibility.

Malaysia on Monday warned ships plying the to be careful of accidents because haze has greatly cut visibility.

The haze has enveloped much of the islands of Sumatra and Borneo, as well as Singapore and parts of western Malaysia.

The haze comes from fires started illegally, mainly in Kalimantan and Sumatra. Agricultural companies and private farmers use the fires to clear land for planting.

Over the past few weeks, the smoke has been so bad in some areas that governments have issued health warnings, and urged people with respiratory illnesses to stay indoors.

The fires occur mainly during the dry season, so they spread quickly, and are hard to extinguish.

Yuri Thamrin, the director of East Asia Pacific at Indonesia's Department of Foreign Affairs, says the problem will not be easy to solve.

"The problem is really the traditional method of slash and burn. We need to do things in long-term perspective, for instance, how to change the dangerous culture, how to give incentive, how to give dissemination, encouragements not to slash and burn, but to make a mechanism, for instance, to produce compost, things like that," noted Thamrin. "So, it's really a comprehensive approach that we need to invest in this."

But environmental groups say not enough is being done to keep the fires from being started in the first place.

Rully Sumanda from the Indonesian environmental group WALHI says laws must be enacted to hold the big plantation owners accountable for fires on their property.

"I've already talked to the minister of environment, and we offered some draft for the law. In this draft, we need to push the responsibility of the company, if there is fire in their concessions, no matter who put the fire in this area, maybe with administrative punishment, something like that," said Sumanda. "That's what the Indonesian government needs to implement."

While slash and burn clearing is illegal in Indonesia, the law is seldom enforced and few have ever been prosecuted.