* Fires worsen in Indonesia despite water bombing
* Indonesian health services record higher incidence of asthma, skin problems
* New record pollution levels in Singapore
By Kanupriya Kapoor
JAKARTA, June 21 (Reuters) - Military planes water-bombed Indonesian forest fires that worsened on Friday and blanketed neighbouring Singapore in record levels of hazardous smog for a third straight day in one of Southeast Asia’s worst air-pollution crises.
As Singaporeans donned face masks and pulled children from playgrounds and Malaysia closed schools in the south, the deliberately-lit fires grew bigger in some areas. Whipped up by winds, the blazes added to fears over health problems and diplomatic tension in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, three of Southeast Asia’s biggest economies.
“The winds are picking up and the weather isn’t very good at the moment, so the fires in some places are getting bigger,” Gunawan, a firefighter who like many Indonesians go by one name, said by telephone. “We are working as hard as possible to control the fires ... but we’re facing difficult conditions.”
Indonesia’s Environment Minister, Balthasar Kambuaya, said the government had identified five companies behind the fires, but refused to name them, according to The Jakarta Post newspaper.
Singapore’s government has warned the haze could last weeks.
Illegal burning of forests and other land on Indonesia’s Sumatra island typically take place in the June to September dry season to clear space for palm oil plantations. But this year’s fires are unusually widespread and the hazy smog is the worst in Singapore’s history.
“Since the fires are happening mostly on plantation lands, we believe there are plantation companies involved. The president has already put together a team to investigate who owns the plantations,” said Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, spokesman for Indonesia’s National Disaster Management Agency.
Indonesia has earmarked around 200 billion rupiah ($20 million) to handle the disaster. Seven military aircraft were deployed for water bombings and rain seeding.
Hospitals in Dumai and Bengkalis in Indonesia’s Riau province recorded increases in cases of asthma, lung, eye and skin problems, said health official Arifin Zainal. Free face masks were being distributed and authorities advised residents to stay indoors with their windows shut.
The Dumai airport remained closed for a third day.
In Singapore, the number of residents wearing face masks rose markedly as the pollution standards index (PSI) climbed to a new record of 401 at midday, a level which health authorities consider potentially life-threatening for the elderly. The PSI moderated later to an “unhealthy” 139.
“Basically, what a ‘hazardous’ PSI level means is that the pollution will cause damage to the lining of the breathing tube,” said Dr Kenneth Chan, consultant respiratory physician at Singapore’s Gleneagles Medical Centre. “If the lining of the breathing tube is damaged, it will make the patient more vulnerable to various infections.”
In Malaysia, southern Johor state was the worst affected, with pollution readings remaining in the “hazardous” category.
The cost of the current haze for Singapore could be hundreds of millions of dollars, brokerage CLSA said in a report.
It said that in 2006, when the pollution index reached 150, it was estimated the haze cost $50 million and in 1997 it was $300 million. CLSA said the 1997 and 2006 figures seemed low when considering the direct and indirect cost of prolonged haze.
Playgrounds emptied as parents kept children inside. But workers in Singapore could still be seen toiling at some construction sites.
The Singapore government has so far only issued only broad guidelines about employers having to ensure the health and safety of workers.
“Even as our government rails against the corporate interests in Sumatra who are willing to sacrifice human health for profits, the Ministry of Manpower still isn’t practicing what they preach by allowing construction companies in Singapore to make their workers slog through the smog,” the Online Citizen, a socio-political website, said in a commentary.
In 1997, the Ministry of Manpower, then called the Ministry of Labour, said outdoor work should stop if the PSI topped 400.
Jetstar, the budget carrier of Australia’s Qantas Airways Ltd, was advertising fares to unaffected destinations like Bangkok, Phuket, Bali and Shantou in China.
“Fantasising about greener pastures or fresh air by the beach? Turn your dream into reality by jetting off with this week’s Friday Fare Frenzy!,” JetStar said.
However, some companies have taken their advertisements a bit too far. McDonald‘s, the fast-food-chain, apologised for making a haze-related pun in one promotion - “Today’s Peak Sauce Index is looking deliciously high”.