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Haze From Indonesia Thickens, Shrouds Parts of Malaysia

Visibility Warnings Issued to Ships in Southern Stretch of Strait of Malacca
Updated July 24, 2013 5:17 a.m. ET

KUALA LUMPURThick acrid smoke wafting from fires burning in Indonesia have again started to shroud parts of Malaysia and could engulf neighboring Singapore, weeks after the worst air pollution in more than a decade choked parts of Southeast Asia. Malaysia's weather office Tuesday issued visibility warnings to ships in the southern stretch of the Strait of Malacca, and the haze pushed air pollution to unhealthy levels in two places in the country. Singapore, meanwhile, registered a complaint with Indonesia over a spike in hotspots, or areas of intense heat that are indicative of fires and are sources of such smog.
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Haze blanketed parts of Malaysia on July 22, weeks after the region suffered its worst pollution from forest fires in Indonesia in more than a decade. Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Cross-border haze has been a chronic problem for Singapore and Malaysia since the 1980s. Winds blow smoke from the seasonal and illegal burning of farmland, forest and peatlands on the islands of Sumatra and Boreno over the Malay peninsula during the dry season. While some subsistence farmers and accidental causes have been blamed for part of the burning, analysts say most fires are detected in plantation areas owned or to be used by palm oil and pulpwood companies. In a letter to Arief Yuwono, who is Indonesia's deputy minister for environmental degradation control and climate change, Singapore's National Environment Agency's

chief executive, Ronnie Tay, offered assistance to prevent the haze with early detection of hotspots and deploying aircraft to assist in cloud-seeding operations to induce rain. Although Singapore has enjoyed blue skies in the past few weeks, its environment agency warned on Sunday that haze could return should wind direction change. The city-state was hit by its worst-ever recorded haze last month, with the country's threehour Pollutant Standards Index touching a record high at 401 on June 21. A level above 300 is described as "hazardous" by the NEA. The agency said "slightly hazy conditions" may be seen on Wednesday, though air quality is expected to remain good. The smoke from the current fires has reduced visibility below five kilometers in the southern stretch of the Strait of Malacca, one of the world's most vital shipping lanes, and could pose a danger to vessels that aren't equipped with navigational equipment, Malaysia's Meteorological Department said in an advisory on its website. It expects such conditions to persist until Thursday. The 805-kilometer (500-mile) Strait of Malacca, a channel that separates Sumatra island and the Malay peninsula, is the shortest sea route between the Persian Gulf and Asian markets. More than 70,000 vessels a year ply the channel, carrying a third of global trade and almost half of world's oil shipments. Maritime accidents due to haze have been rare, as most vessels are equipped with sophisticated satellite-guided navigational devices. Air quality in Malaysia's western district of Malacca and a part in northern Perak district has remained above 100, according to data from the Department of Environment. Readings between 100 and 200 are classified as unhealthy. Indonesia has frequently come under pressure from its haze-hit neighbors for its attempts to control the blazes. Last week, after years of delay, the Southeast Asian giant of more than 240 million people agreed to become the final member of a 10-nation regional antipollution pact, a major step to boost cooperation in fighting such annual bouts of air pollution. But Indonesia stopped short of publicly revealing closely guarded maps of where companies operate in Sumatra and Borneo, which are key to investigators' trying to identify culprits in the fires as they track their progress from satellites. This week, fire alerts are again on the rise on Sumatra island, and half of the nearly 200 blazes in recent days are occurring on the land of pulpwood, logging and palm-oil companies, according to Washington-based World Resources Institute, a not-for-profit environmental research organization.

NASA satellites detected a total of 198 hotspots across Sumatra from July 20 to 22, just shy of the number last month that had prompted schools to be shut the and overloading hospitals in parts of Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia. Erwin Mulyana, a national technology agency researcher working on Indonesia's cloudseeding program in Riau, said the spike in fires is directly related to a lack of rain in recent days. The region would "once again be shrouded by smoke haze if the hotspots in Sumatra continue to remain high," NEA's Mr. Tay said in a statement issued late Monday. Ben Otto in Jakarta and Gaurav Raghuvanshi in Singapore contributed to this article. Write to Abhrajit Gangopadhyay at