Fires in Indonesia that have blanketed Singapore and Malaysia in thick smog eased on Wednesday after heavy rain, boosting hopes of an end to Southeast Asia’s worst air pollution crisis for years.
The news came as a report said the crisis had claimed its first victim with the death of an asthmatic woman in southern Malaysia, which has been badly affected.
The smog from slash-and-burn agricultural fires on Sumatra island pushed haze levels to a record high in Singapore last week, shrouding residential buildings and downtown skyscrapers.
Favourable winds have since cleared the air over the city-state but southern Malaysia remains choked by smoke.
Indonesia deployed thousands of reinforcements on Tuesday to fight the fires, which are centred in Riau province. They are backed by aircraft dropping water and chemically inducing rain by cloud-seeding.
Their efforts were helped when rain fell late Tuesday and early Wednesday in several areas of Riau, officials and residents said.
On Wednesday morning, the number of fire hotspots had fallen to 54 from 265 the previous day, national disaster agency official Agus Wibowo told AFP from Riau.
“The rain has definitely helped our efforts,” he said. “With the improving weather on our side, we are taking the opportunity to quickly fight the blazes on land.”
The fires have been hard to put out as they are burning under the surface of carbon-rich peat, meaning hoses need to be pushed into the ground to douse the flames.
Conditions had improved dramatically in the badly-hit city of Dumai, in Riau, on Wednesday after a storm broke at dawn, according to an AFP reporter.
“We were so hoping for rainwater because our water supply for bathing and washing clothes had run out,” said Lisa Rahmawati, a 25-year-old secretary.
In Malaysia, pollution has spiked to hazardous levels in some places in recent days, with the south seeing its worst air quality in 16 years last weekend.
The smog had eased Wednesday but continued to hang over some areas including the capital Kuala Lumpur.
The Sun newspaper said Li Cai Ling, a resident of the southern town of Muar — which saw intense air pollution at the weekend — died on Sunday with a medical report blaming the polluted air.
The situation has also forced newly-promoted English Premier League side Cardiff City to cancel a Malaysia visit that was set to begin this week.
The club said in a statement posted on its website on Tuesday that it has abandoned the scheduled week-long trip to Malaysia — home of its billionaire owner Vincent Tan — “due to the current poor air quality in the region”.
Haze is an annual problem during drier summer months, when westerly monsoon winds blow smoke from forest fires and slash-and-burn land-clearing on the huge Indonesian island of Sumatra, which lies across the Malacca Strait.
But this summer’s recurrence has been the worst in years.
Malaysia’s environment minister travelled to Indonesia on Wednesday morning to meet his counterpart in the hopes of resolving the problem, which earlier sparked a testy exchange between Indonesia and Singapore.
In 1997-1998, a severe bout of haze cost Southeast Asia an estimated $9 billion from disruptions to air travel and other business activities.