The forest fires blanketing Southeast Asia in choking haze are on track to become among the worst on record, NASA has warned, with a prolonged dry season hampering efforts to curb a crisis that has persisted for nearly two decades, AFP reported on Friday (2 Oct 2015).
Malaysia, Singapore and large expanses of Indonesia have suffered for weeks from acrid smoke billowing from fires on plantations and peatlands that are being illegally cleared by burning.
Though the crisis grips the region nearly every year during the dry season, scientists predict the current outbreak could surpass 1997 levels, when out-of-control forest fires sent pollution soaring to record highs in an environmental disaster that cost an estimated US$9 billion.
If the forecasted dry conditions extend, the region could be enveloped in even denser smog, exacerbating a crisis that has seen flights grounded, schools closed and tens of thousands of people seek medical treatment for respiratory problems.
“Conditions in Singapore and southeastern Sumatra are tracking close to 1997,” Robert Field, a Columbia University scientist based at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, was quoted as saying by the US science agency.
“If the forecasts for a longer dry season hold, this suggests 2015 will rank among the most severe events on record.”
Pressure on Indonesia from its neighbors has intensified this year as the fires have raged on, with Jakarta deploying more than 20,000 troops, police and other personnel to fight the fires through water-bombing and chemically-induced rainfall.
An El Nino weather system has made conditions drier than usual in Indonesia, but authorities are hoping much-needed rains will arrive within a month to finally douse the blazes.