November 20, 1997 in Nation/World

Monsoons Bring Breath Of Fresh Air To Indonesia Rains Clear Haze That Has Plauged Southeast Asia For Months

Haris Syamaun Associated Press

Monsoon rains cleared the air over Southeast Asia on Wednesday, bringing relief to millions who have suffered for months from a choking haze that has endangered their health.

“The whole region is clearing,” said Wong Teo Suan of Singapore’s Meteorological Services. “Whatever remains behind should be doused by rain.”

However, firefighters in Indonesia said it could be some time before the heavy rains extinguish all the forest fires that caused the haze.

In the meantime, the government was continuing efforts to produce rain artificially, by cloud seeding, the Jakarta Post newspaper reported.

The number of fires still burning Wednesday was not immediately known, because heavy clouds have blocked satellite surveillance, said Kuri Purnamasari, a spokeswoman for Bapedal, the government’s environmental monitoring body.

As of the weekend, there were still seven major hot spots. But since then, Kuri said, the rainfall has been heavy on Sumatra, Borneo and New Guinea, where fires have been raging since July.

In the Sumatran city of Pekanbaru, people breathed easier.

“Children are running in the rain. Grownups are busy mending their roofs and cleaning out drains in their neighborhoods,” said Semito, a resident of the city. “The air is fresh again.”

The government has said that many of the fires were deliberately started to clear land, a centuries-old practice in Indonesia. But officials also blame a prolonged drought that meteorologists attribute to El Nino, a weather phenomenon over the Pacific Ocean.

Consuming huge swaths of forest, the fires blanketed the region in smog, sending air pollution levels soaring in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines and southern Thailand.

The haze reduced visibility, forcing temporary closings of airports in the region. Wednesday was the first time in months that the dozen or so airports in Indonesia were all open.

“As of today all airports are operating,” Kuri said.

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