Fires set by plantation owners in Indonesia may be to blame for the smog hanging over Phnom Penh, the Ministry of the Environment said yesterday. “I know there is a serious problem with haze,” Ministry spokesman Sao Sopheap told Khmer Times. “We have noticed haze in Phnom Penh and Cambodia. It may be from Indonesia, but we cannot be sure.”
Part of the reason for the uncertainty is that Indonesia has released little information about the exact sources of the acrid haze. Analysts say much of it is caused by fires started in the massive plantations that dot the island of Sumatra.
Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia have been the worst-hit by the toxic smoke, which has forced flight delays, canceled school and sporting events, and caused untold health consequences for people forced to breathe the highly polluted air. Now, seasonal monsoon winds have also blown the haze to the northeast, where it has affected Thailand and possibly Cambodia as well.
“Prolonged exposure to the haze could also create health problems making people more vulnerable to respiratory illnesses,” Simon Tay, chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, told Khmer Times. “Recent data from the Riau Health Agency [in Indonesia], for example, showed that over 50,000 people had suffered from haze-related illnesses to date.”
The haze can cause skin irritation, eye irritation, asthma, and pneumonia. It can also cause lasting lung damage for people who inhale it for too long.
The Thai government has launched an app called Air4ASEAN that tracks the spread of the haze from the Indonesian fires, and monitors the air quality in different countries. Cambodian air quality monitoring stations have not yet been included in the app’s database, and no experts on Cambodian air quality could be reached for comment yesterday on the exact state of Cambodia’s air.
Indonesian plantation-owners have used fire as a cheap way to prepare the soil for seed planting for close to two decades now. The resulting smog has become a perennial problem for the region, and one that ASEAN’s “Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution” aimed at reducing. So far, though, there has been little regional cooperation toward resolving the issue.
Though Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar, and Vietnam met in August to discuss the haze problem, Indonesia did not join the talks. Meanwhile, the haze is reaching its worst levels so far this year, with the Pollution Standards Index topping 300 in Sumatra for the first time this year in late September.
Indonesian authorities have been slow to name or punish the companies responsible for causing the haze until now, though Mr. Tan said this may be about to change.
“Besides fire-fighting, the president [Joko Widodo] has also pledged to prosecute companies and Indonesian agencies have started to name some,” said Mr. Tan.