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Life almost unbearable under Southeast Asia’s haze disaster

September 25, 1997

JAMBI, Indonesia (AP) _ The smoke is so thick it stings the eyes and burns the throat, making the simple act of breathing a chore. It’s impossible to see beyond 50 feet and the sun seems to have disappeared.

All across Southeast Asia, people are struggling to cope with an unprecedented ecological disaster caused by hundreds of forest fires in Indonesia.

The fires _ many of them deliberately set as a cheap way of clearing land _ have been burning for months, creating a cloud of smoke that covers an area more than half the size of the continental United States.

Known as ``the haze,″ it has made life miserable for millions of people, not only in Indonesia but also in five other countries where it has sent air pollution levels soaring: Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, the Philippines and Thailand.

The high-rise office buildings of Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur, are barely visible. Some beach resorts in southern Thailand are blanketed. Airports across the region have been closed. Many schools have been shut down.

But nowhere is the smoke worse than in this town of 300,000 on the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

Jambi, 370 miles northeast of the Indonesian capital of Jakarta, is surrounded by a fire that has crept to within a few miles of the city. The forest undergrowth is alive with flames and with every hot, dry gust of wind, the sparks swirl high into the trees.

In town, long lines of coughing patients wait outside doctors’ clinics. Hospital wards are full.

``I take cough medicine and wear a mask when I’m outside,″ said Roy Pernihutay, an operator with the local telephone company. ``But I still find it hard to breathe. My head feels dizzy.″

Smoke detectors have been switched off to keep them from rigging constantly. By early afternoon, the daylight is so dim that drivers must turn on their headlights.

The scene is the same on the island of Borneo and in parts of Java and Sulawesi.

The fires, many deliberately set by forestry and plantation companies, have blackened at least 740,000 acres. There are unconfirmed reports that the acreage burned is twice that number.

To make matters worse, El Nino, an abnormal weather pattern over the Pacific Ocean, has brought on the worst drought in half a century, delaying monsoon rains that could ease the situation.

Indonesia and Malaysia have ordered planes to drop salt solution into clouds to induce artificial precipitation. But many aircraft have been grounded by lack of visibility. Those that do get into the air have trouble finding the right sort of clouds to seed.

``Allah will give us rain,″ said one of hundreds of Muslims who gathered to pray Thursday in Jambi.

Indonesia’s President Suharto has apologized to his neighbors, saying his government is doing its best to tackle the problem. All land-clearing has been banned and harsh new penalties have been enacted again forest burners.

Indonesia has deployed more than 8,000 firefighters, and 1,200 more have come from Malaysia. Other nations, including the United States, Japan, Australia, have offered assistance.

But some critics aren’t satisfied.

``The government has reacted very slowly and must do more,″ said Emmy Halfidi of Walhi, an Indonesian environmental group.

The greatest toll so far has been in Irian Jaya, the Indonesian-controlled half of New Guinea, about 1,250 miles east of Jakarta. There the thick smoke has stopped aircraft from delivering emergency supplies to remote villages where drought has withered gardens and dried up wells and streams.

Officials say at least 271 people in Irian Jaya have died of famine and from diseases spread by contaminated water.

Elsewhere, the haze has been blamed for two deaths, both in Indonesia, where 35,000 people have been treated for smoke inhalation. Another 16,000 people have been sickened in Malaysia.

In Jambi, health officials have asked the town’s only international standard hotel to reserve two floors for dozens of seriously ill respiratory patients. With its air conditioning, the hotel has the best air in town.

``This is a disaster,″ said Dr. Erdianato, a doctor in Jambi. ``We are seeing upper respiratory problems now. But we are very worried about lower respiratory problems. There’s the possibility of lung cancer in the years to come.″

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