The thick haze that blanketed stretches of Southeast Asia last year caused more than $1 billion in damage to the region's health, industry and tourism, environmentalists said Wednesday.
The report by the World Wide Fund for Nature and the Economy and Environmental Program for Southeast Asia came as fires are raging again in parts of Indonesia, triggering fears of a resurgence of the haze.From July through November last year, thick smoke from deliberately set forest fires in Indonesia drove up pollution, shut down schools and airports, sickened thousands and scared away tourists.
Seasonal rains late in the year finally doused most of the fires. But the haze left a total of $1.4 billion in damage, with the highest toll - $1 billion - falling on Indonesia, mostly in added health costs, Wednesday's report said.
Malaysia suffered $300 million in damage, mainly in lost industrial production and a drop in tourism. Singapore lost over $60 million, mostly from tourism.
The costs came at a difficult time for the region, which is in the throes of its worst economic crisis in decades, bringing surging food prices, industrial shutdowns and rising unemployment.
The total area of forest and other areas burned in 1997 has still not been fully measured, but the report said the estimate of 5 million acres is conservative.
The full costs of the haze may not be known for years because of potential long-term health problems caused by the smoke, and fire damage done to forest resources like timber.
Countries in the region are trying to coordinate efforts to prevent haze-producing fires. Environmental ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations met Wednesday in Kuching, Malaysia, to discuss the haze.
Worried that the El Nino weather phenomenon could prolong the dry season and contribute to the spread of fires, the ministers urged Indonesia and Malaysia to step up fire prevention efforts.
"We need to be extra vigilant against the onset of more fires," Singapore's Environment Minister Yeow Cheow Tong told his counterparts.
Malaysia's environment minister, Law Hieng Ding, didn't apparently share the same urgency. Before the ministers convened, Law said he wasn't concerned about a repeat of last year's haze crisis, even though fires last week spread haze over Borneo island and Singapore.
Wildfires have already destroyed some 34,580 acres of drought-affected forest this year on Borneo, and haze shut down an airport in the area Monday. Fires are also burning on Sumatra.