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Indonesia's Forest Fires Feed 'Brown Cloud' of Pollution Choking Asia's Cities

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An acrid blanket of haze is hanging over the cities of south-east Asia, where 700,000 people a year die prematurely from the effects of air pollution. Industry and climate change are being blamed, but governments are slow to act  

High above the vast Indonesian island of Sumatra, satellites identify hundreds of plumes of smoke drifting over the oil palm plantations and rainforests. They look harmless as the monsoon winds sweep them north and east towards Singapore, Malaysia and deep into Cambodia, Laos and Thailand. But at ground level, south-east Asian cities have been choking for weeks, wreathed in an acrid, stinking blanket of half-burned vegetation mixed with industrial pollution, car exhaust fumes and ash.

From Palangkarya in Borneo to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, the air has been thick, the sun a dull glow and face masks obligatory. Schools, airports and roads have been closed and visibility at times has been down to just a few yards. Communities have had to be evacuated and people advised to remain indoors, transport has been disrupted and more than 50,000 people have had to be treated for asthma, bronchitis and other respiratory illnesses in Sumatra alone. Last week more than 200 Malaysian schools were forced to close, and pollution twice reached officially hazardous levels.

The Asian "haze", which comes and goes with the wind and droughts, is back with a vengeance just eight months after an embarrassed Indonesian government promised it would never happen again and was forced to apologize to neighboring countries for the pollution that blanketed the region in June 2013.

Mixed with the dense photo-chemical smogs that regularly hang over most large traffic-choked Asian cities, south-east Asia's air pollution has become not just a major public health hazard but is said to be now threatening food production, tourism and economic expansion. In addition, say scientists, it may now be exacerbating climate change.

According to Nasa satellite maps, more than 3,000 separate fires have been recorded across Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia since mid-January, more than in June 2013 when the pollution spiked to dangerous levels and became a regional diplomatic crisis. This time, the monsoon winds mostly spared Singapore but sent the thick smog from burning peat soils and vegetation over much of the region. Around 10 million people and an area the size of Britain and France have been affected.  


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