John Vidal – The scale of one of the world's greatest manmade environmental catastrophes was becoming clear last night as poisonous fog blanketed up to 70 million people in six south-east Asian countries and scientists warned of long-term climate disruption.
Many hundreds of deaths had been reported throughout the 100 square mile area, even before an Indonesian airliner crashed in the smog yesterday claiming 234 lives. In the past few days, the death toll from hunger in the Indonesian province of Irian Jaya alone has risen to more than 275.
Satellite pictures showing that the uncontrollable fires have spread to one million hectares of deep peatlands, which may burn underground for decades, have rebounded round the world. With visibility down to fewer than 20 yards in many cities and cars having to use their headlights in the middle of the day, Indonesia has declared a national disaster and Malaysia a state of emergency.
Although some rain fell yesterday in the region, dense smog has reached Thailand and the southern Philippines. Hoteliers as far north as the Thai resort island of Phuket, 900 miles from the nearest fires in south Sumatra or Kalimantan, say they are now enveloped by grimy smog.
Antara, the official Indonesian news agency, reported that fires in Irian Jaya have swept into Papua New Guinea and burnt down a camp inhabited by 600 Indonesian political refugees. President Suharto of Indonesia yesterday ordered four million civil servants to join nearly 10,000 people already fighting the fires, although it is accepted that only heavy monsoon rains will eventually extinguish them. These are two months late and the World Meteorological Organisation has warned that the drought affecting the whole region may continue until next year.
An international relief effort is getting under way. The World Bank yesterday offered emergency help as Japan, France, Finland, Germany and Canada sent teams of pollution experts and firefighters. The Indonesian air force and navy are preparing to help with cloud-seeding efforts to induce rain. The United Nations is sending an emergency evaluation team and 150,000 face masks for children. The price of surgical masks has soared everywhere in the region. There are plans to import four million from the United States to distribute to people in central Sumatra.
The health emergency is growing. Although the winds changed last night temporarily relieving some areas, 15,000 Malaysians and 45,000 Indonesians, most of them children and elderly, have been treated for smog-related illnesses.
Air pollution was yesterday double the legal safety limit in nine Thai provinces. The smog has triggered health alarms in Singapore and Brunei. The smog is adding to the heavy air pollution that already exists in most of the region's cities.
Missionaries yesterday claimed that many deaths could have been avoided if fires in the area had not been allowed to burn out of control, preventing aircraft from bringing in relief.
The long-term ecological implications are not well understood. In Geneva, the director-general of the Swissbased World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), Claude Martin, described the situation as a "planetary disaster".
Scientists warned that the effect on long-term global warming and immediate weather patterns throughout the world could be immense. The effect of the fire, especially if it takes hold in the peatlands, is to release a massive amount of carbon dioxide which causes global warming," said Richard Lindsay of the University of East London. "The long-term threat to climate worldwide and health is significant."
The lowland tropical rain forests of Sumatra and Kalimantan are among the most biologically rich ecosystems on earth. The potential loss to science of whole species would be felt worldwide, while the haze would hit the health and economies of the whole region, he said.
Much of the Indonesian forests lie on up to 10-20 metres of now burning peat. Clay Rubec, of the International Mire [Peatlands] Organisation, which advises governments on peatland fires said yesterday that more than one million hectares of peat swamp forest could be destroyed within six months.
Peat fires burn deep underground for years and are almost impossible to control on a large scale. "This fire is a greater threat to human health than the Kuwaiti oil fires and harder to put out."
Elephants, tigers and deer were potentially at risk but the effects would be felt throughout the food chain of the region because trees and plants would not pollinate.
The air pollution could further complicate economic problems in the region, analysts warned yesterday. A whole range of industries from tourism to electronics and palm oil production, could be affected, said Liew Yin Sze, head of research at the Singapore investment house J M Sassoon. Mr Liew said the electronics industry, a crucial driver of the economies of Singapore and Malaysia, could also be hit. "You might see increased costs in clean-room industries like semiconductors," he said.
An agricultural analyst with another investment house in Singapore said world palm oil prices could rise in 1998-99. Meanwhile, the Indonesian government has blamed 176 plantation companies for causing the fires, but has taken action against only one.
British environment groups yesterday accused western consumers of contributing to the fires because of the consumption of tropical hardwoods. Tony Juniper, of Friends of the Earth, said: "The disaster unfolding is inextricably linked to the behaviour of countries in the developed world who consume vast quantities of wood." Last year the UK imported 201,650 cubic metres of tropical timbers from Indonesia. More than 1 million hectares of Indonesian forest are lost to logging every year.
Meanwhile, everyday life is severely affected. 'It isn't simply the zest and joy of life that's denied by the sustained smog," said one mother in Kuala Lumpur. "It weakens you from all frontiers - lack of sunlight, eyes smarting all the time, skin itch, and the choking like it is a banshee from purgatory."