SINGAPORE: Buildings pictured after a haze blanketed the skyline on Wednesday.—AFP
SINGAPORE: Buildings pictured after a haze blanketed the skyline on Wednesday.—AFP

KUALA LUMPUR: Toxic haze from Indonesian forest fires closed thousands of schools across the country and in neighbouring Malaysia on Wednesday, while air quality worsened in Singapore just days before the city’s Formula One motor race.

Illegal fires to clear land for agriculture are blazing out of control on Sumatra and Borneo islands, with Jakarta deploying thousands of security forces and water-bombing aircraft to tackle them.

The Indonesian blazes are an annual problem, but this year’s are the worst since 2015 and have added to concerns about wildfire outbreaks worldwide exacerbating global warming.

On Wednesday, air quality deteriorated to “very unhealthy” levels on an official index in many parts of peninsular Malaysia, to the east of Sumatra, with the Kuala Lumpur skyline shrouded by dense smog.

Nearly 1,500 schools were closed across Malaysia due to the air pollution, with over one million pupils affected, according to the education ministry.

The two worst-affected states were Selangor, outside Kuala Lumpur, where 538 schools were closed, and Sarawak on Borneo, with 337 closures. Hundreds of schools in several other states in peninsular Malaysia were also affected. Borneo island is divided between Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei.

A growing number of Malaysians were suffering health problems due to the haze, with authorities saying there had been a sharp increase in outpatients at government hospitals — many suffering dry and itchy eyes.

Indonesian authorities said hundreds of schools in hard-hit Riau province on Sumatra were shut, without providing a precise number, while about 1,300 were closed in Central Kalimantan province on Borneo.

Poor visibility also caused the cancellation Tuesday of about 40 flights at three airports in Indonesian Borneo. Air quality in Singapore worsened to unhealthy levels and a white smog obscured the striking waterfront skyline, featuring the Marina Bay Sands casino resort with its three towers and boat-shaped top level.

Published in Dawn, September 19th, 2019