We're experiencing a new Southeast Asian phenomenon this week: haze. Bad haze. Like, you can see it indoors haze. This is not at all new to SEA, but the haze so far this year is the worst since 2006.

Taken from inside Kyle's office, so you're seeing the reflection of the lights. This is not part of the problem.
The haze is the result of slash and burn agriculture in neighboring countries combined with the Southwest Monsoon. Slash and burn farming is cheap and effective at clearing the land. But it's horrible environmentally.

The culprit in Singapore's eyes is Indonesia. Though slash and burn agriculture is illegal in Indonesia, the ban is rarely enforced and a Singaporean official told me on Friday that rich landowners pay poor farms to set small fires in out of the way places that then grow. Interestingly, Indonesia is planning to impose a two-year moratorium on new permits to clear natural forest from 2011. But for now, all of that smoke is blowing toward us.

Here, air quality is measured on a Pollution Standard Index based on the US EPA Ambient Air Quality Standards. A PSI reading of 0-50 means the air quality is in the good range; 51-100 is in the moderate range; 101-200 is in the unhealthy range; 201-300 is very unhealthy; and above 300 is hazardous. Around 400 can be fatal. 

Of course Indonesia, Singapore, and the other SEA countries have slightly differing opinions on all of this. On Thursday, when Singapore's PSI topped out at 108--the highest it's been since the droughts and fires of 2006--the Indonesia Foreign Ministry denied that Indonesia was the source of the problem.

That day the Indonesian Forestry Ministry reportedly recorded 37 hot spots in the Riau province of Indonesia; 19 in Burma; 13 in Serawak, Malaysia; and 10 in the Philippines. Clearly it is a regional issue (though Indonesia is certainly in the lead).

But today, the Jakarta Post reported that the government was blaming the haze over Singapore and Malaysia on fires set by Indonesian farmers in Bengkalis, Riau province. Both the Malaysian and Singaporean governments have expressed concern (Malaysia sent theirs by fax, apparently) to the Indonesian government and offered to help.

The Jakarta Post quoted Indonesian Environment Minister Gusti Muhammad Hatta from a press conference on Friday saying, "Singapore tends to make noise quickly if pollution levels even slightly exceed tolerable standards, even though this is still common in Indonesia.”

And he's right. Singapore is unhappy about a PSI of 108 and the highest on record here was 226 (back in 2006 during the drought/fire combo). Unfortunately our little island state is the exception. Today Beijing had a PSI of 310.  Kuala Lumpur, the capitol of Malaysia, topped 500 in 2005.

That still doesn't make me want to open the windows though.