By Nopporn Wong-Anan
SINGAPORE - Smoky haze hanging over Singapore from fires set in Indonesia was causing a significant increase in health problems, Singapore said on Friday, as it offered its neighbour help to put the blazes out.
Malaysia has also blamed the worst air pollution in the region since 2006 on the fires which an Indonesian official said were set deliberately to clear land for farming.
Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo telephoned his Indonesian counterpart, Marty Natalegawa, to express concern about the haze and to reiterated Singapore's readiness to help.
"Minister Yeo informed Minister Marty that the PSI went over 100 yesterday and cases of respiratory problems including asthma had increased significantly," the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
A reading above 100 on Singapore's PSI, or pollution standards index, is considered unhealthy.
The fires and smoke pollution are a regular occurrence and can scare off tourists and disrupt transport, leading to strains in generally good ties in the region.
But Indonesia, the world's top palm oil producer which has a history of weak forestry law enforcement, appears unable to do anything about the problem.
Yeo's call came a day after Singapore's environment minister, Yaacob Ibrahim, spoke with his Indonesian counterpart, Gusti Hatta, urging Jakarta "to allocate the necessary resources, and implement timely and effective measures to solve the haze situation".
The haze, which started this week, is caused by fires lit to clear land for palm oil plantations on Sumatra.
"We have done our best to minimise the forest fires in those areas. But the law enforcement is weak," said Noor Hidayat, director of forest control at Indonesia's Ministry of Forestry.
"I think law enforcement apparatus must work harder and tougher towards people who did this. Shock therapy is needed here," Hidayat told Reuters Television.
Indonesian television showed a wall of grey smoke rising from plantations and forest in Sumatra while the city of Pekanbaru was choked with haze.
Illegal land clearing by palm oil developers is common in Indonesia. Fires clear land quickly and reduce the acidity of peat soil, but release vast amounts of greenhouse gases.
The fires come ahead of an Indonesian plan to impose a two-year moratorium on new permits to clear natural forest from 2011 as planters are looking to expand plantations on the back of rising prices.
Malaysia's Natural Resources and Environment Minister Douglas Uggah Embas told Reuters he had also written to urge his Indonesian counterpart "to take appropriate action to mitigate the problem" and to offer help to put out the fires.
Malaysian Health Minister Liow Tiong Lai added: "We know that there is open burning in Indonesia so we hope that Indonesia can take some measures to reduce open burning."
Air quality on Friday had improved with better visibility in both Singapore and Malaysia. In Singapore, the pollution level was judged "moderate," after an "unhealthy" level on Thursday while many schools in the Malaysian town of Muar reopened.
The haze returned to the region less than a week after Southeast Asia's environment ministers met in Brunei to address the problem of fires.
The worst haze in the region was in 1997-98, when drought caused by the El Nino weather pattern led to major Indonesian fires. The smoke spread to Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand and cost more than $9 billion in damage to tourism, transport and farming.