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Dangerous Haze Returning to Southeast Asia - 2003-06-12


There are early indications that smoky haze may be returning to Southeast Asia. Smoke from farmland fires in Indonesia already is causing concerns about public health.

Weather experts and government officials say that in northern Indonesia there are already more than 1,200-hundred hot spots - the term used for the fires that create the blanket of smoke.

"One hot spot means that in one kilometer by one kilometer there is one fire burning," says Liew Soo Chin, the head of research at the satellite-imaging department of the National University of Singapore. "It doesn't mean that all the one-kilometer by one kilometer is burning. It means that some fire is occurring somewhere."

Every June, July and August, thousands of farmers and plantation-owners in northern Indonesia set the fires to clear land for planting. They set the fires even though the government banned slash-and-burn clearing four years ago after haze cloaked parts of Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand.

In 1997 and 1998, the haze was blamed for causing widespread health problems and disrupting flight patterns, when the smoke made it too dangerous for airlines to operate. It also drove away tourists, depriving Southeast Asia of valuable revenue.

Singapore was one of the worst hit cities, and for weeks, the air was so thick that many people with respiratory illnesses were forced to leave town, or stay indoors.

Mr. Liew says it is too soon to tell whether the problem will affect Singapore this year. "As far as I can see - it's not alarming here yet. Now the wind is not blowing toward Singapore, so we don't see the effect yet."

But in Indonesia's northern province of Riau, news reports say authorities have begun to hand out face masks to help residents avoid breathing in smoke particles.

Indonesia's state news agency says the province has been put on an "alert level," but officials say the problem is not as bad as in previous years.