'Worst haze' in 10 years for S. Thailand
DENSE haze produced by Indonesian forest fires has caused some of the worst pollution levels in southern Thailand for a decade, officials said yesterday, delaying flights in an area popular with tourists.
For nearly two months, thousands of fires caused by slash-and-burn farming have suffocated vast expanses of South-east Asia, causing rates of respiratory illnesses to soar, schools to close, and scores of flights and some international events to be cancelled.
Thailand usually avoids the worst effects of Indonesia's fires, which annually blight Malaysia and Singapore.
But in recent weeks prevailing winds have brought the smog further north, stoking tensions and creating a headache for the country's vital tourism industry.
Thai officials said yesterday air quality had dipped to unhealthy levels in seven southern provinces, with particularly high readings in south-western Songkhla province where some flights have been delayed or turned back.
"It's considered a crisis. It's the worst in 10 years," said Halem Jemarican, head of the Environment Office in Songkhla province.
"The key factor is the wind. It's strong at the hot spot origins but when it reaches Thailand the winds weaken so the haze stays around for longer."
Transport officials said two Bangkok to Koh Samui flights had to return to the airport yesterday while a Singapore flight to the resort island diverted to Phuket. A flight to Songkhla's Hat Yai airport was also diverted on Wednesday evening.
Earlier this month, some planes packed with beach-bound tourists to Phuket and Koh Samui were forced to turn back because of haze levels.
Late yesterday, an official at Samui airport, who withheld her name, told Agence France-Presse that "all flights had been cancelled since 10am because of the haze".
Land is illegally cleared by burning in Indonesian tropical peatlands, which are rich in carbon but are being drained and cleared at a rapid rate to make way for agriculture, particularly for palm oil.
Experts warn the current outbreak of pollution is on track to become the worst ever, exacerbated by bone-dry conditions caused by the El Nino weather phenomenon.
Meanwhile, the Indonesian government revealed plans to evacuate babies and children affected by the haze in Sumatra and Kalimantan to ships owned by the military or a state-owned shipping firm, The Jakarta Post reported.
Babies and children will first be evacuated to the south, which has a lower Air Pollutant Standard Index. But they will be evacuated to the ships if air quality readings in the south are also "severe", said an official.[ ]