Many of Southeast Asia’s cities are being blanketed in an acrid, smoggy mix of smoke and ash from forest fires, industrial emissions, and vehicular exhaust. Land-clearing agricultural fires in Indonesia, mostly in the province of North Sumatra, are producing much of the smoke and causing many to point the finger at the Indonesian government and the country’s pulp, paper, lumber and palm oil corporations. NASA satellite imaging has recorded some 3,000 fires in Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia so far this year, though Burma, Laos, Cambodia and the Philippines are not entirely blameless.

Though last year’s “Hazepocalypse” embarrassed Indonesia and prompted promises of action against further fires by its government, it seems little has been done so far. Drought conditions are not helping.

Smoke and haze over Sumatra on March 12. Pic: NASA/GSFC/Jeff Schmaltz/MODIS Land Rapid Response Team

From the Guardian:

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.

Around half the fires are burning on industrial logging land and palm oil plantations. By not controlling the fires on their land (whether they’ve started them or not), these mega-corporations are not only poisoning Southeast Asia, they’re also shooting themselves in the foot. The president of Indonesia’s Asia Pacific Resources International Limited (APRIL), which is Asia’s second-largest pulp and paper firm, recently announced that the company is itself a victim of the fires, which have cost it $5-6 million US.

Indonesia’s environment minister recently announced that legal action is being taken against 45 companies involved in slash-and-burn land clearing and deforestation in the country. 

Air pollution, and we’re talking about both indoors and outdoors, is now the biggest environmental health problem, and it’s affecting everyone, both developed and developing countries.

The risks from air pollution are now far greater than previously thought or understood, particularly for heart disease and strokes. Few risks have a greater impact on global health today than air pollution. The evidence signals the need for concerted action to clean up the air we all breathe.

—Maria Neira, WHO public and environmental health chief (via AFP)

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), air pollution is now the world’s greatest health risk, contributing to an estimated 7 million deaths in 2012. Research linked one death in eight to air pollution, mostly from cardio-pulmonary diseases, stroke and lung cancer. 4.3 million deaths were attributed to indoor pollution and 3.7 million to outdoor. The WHO places Southeast Asia, India and the Western Pacific in the category of greatest risk.

Smog in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Pic: ThisParticularGreg (Flickr CC)