Singapore shut schools Friday and began distributing free anti-pollution masks to the elderly and other vulnerable people as a thick smoky haze blowing in from Indonesai cast covered the island-nation with pollution reaching its worst level this year.
The government ordered all primary and secondary schools to be shut. Also, free face masks were being distributed at community centers across the island to the vulnerable from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.. Volunteers were also expected to go house to house to give out the masks to those who were unable to come to community centers.
Air quality deteriorated to officially “hazardous” levels Thursday in Singapore — a key Southeast Asian business and transit hub — as choking smog blew in from Indonesia's neighboring island of Sumatra, where forests and brush are being illegally burned to clear land for oil palm plantations and other farming.
The Singapore government’s three-hour Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) hit 319, its highest level so far this year, around midnight local time. The country’s National Environment Agency lists a level of 201-300 as “very unhealthy,” and above 300 as “hazardous.” Thick gray smoke shrouded the island city-state’s gleaming skyscrapers and crept into homes, even as many residents were staying indoors in attempt to escape the pollution.
Singapore, which prides itself on its clean environment, has been cloaked by the haze in varying degrees this year for about three weeks, the worst such episode since mid-2013.
"The hazy conditions in Singapore have further deteriorated since last night, as denser haze from Sumatra has been blown in by the prevailing southerly winds," Singapore's National Environment Agency said in an advisory.
The agency advised healthy persons to "avoid prolonged or strenuous outdoor physical exertion," and urged the elderly, pregnant women and children to minimize outdoor exposure.
The conditions also cast a shadow over festivities for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, as people headed to mosques to celebrate the culmination of the annual Hajj pilgrimage. While some covered their mouths to block out the haze, none wore masks, as prayers conducted inside the mosque required them to wash their faces. Mustafa Muhamad, 61, said the bad air quality was causing some of his friends to say prayers at home instead for the festival of sacrifice.
"The haze is very bad, there are less people in the mosque this year. Coming to the mosque to pray used to be very nice because we would mingle around after," the teacher explained. Housewife Asnah Mohamad, 62, said she and a friend used their headscarves to cover their faces as they travelled to a mosque.
"My husband cannot leave the house because he has a heart condition so I represented him to collect the meat offerings," she told news agency Agence France-Presse, referring to the traditional practice of sharing the meat of a sacrificed goat or sheep. "We hope it gets better soon. But what can you do? Go over there (to Indonesia) and pour water on the fire?"
Businesses complained of low customer turnout, especially for a holiday, local media reported. The Singapore Sports Hub complex suspended all outdoor activities.
Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin called for calm in a Facebook post late Thursday.
"At all times refer only to official channels for information and do not circulate speculations," he wrote.
For the past two decades, smoke from Indonesia has been spreading to other parts of Southeast Asia during the region’s annual mid-year dry season, when plantation owners and other farmers deliberately start brush and forest fires to clear land.
Southeast Asia's most damaging cross-border haze came in 1997 and 1998, when the smog caused an estimated $9 billion in losses in economic activity across the region. Parts of Malaysia and Thailand have also occasionally been affected.
The haze situation has been made worse this year by an El Niño weather system, which produces tinder-dry conditions.
Under pressure from neighboring countries, Indonesian President Joko Widodo has pledged to crack down on companies and individuals behind the burning —a cheap but illegal way of clearing large tracts of land. During a visit to the haze-stricken islands of Borneo and Sumatra this week, Widodo called on local residents to do their part.
"I'm taking this opportunity to ask the community not to carry out burning, whether at the farms, in their own yards or on the streets," Widodo told reporters.
He said the government was trying its best to extinguish the fires by dropping water from helicopters and inducing rain through cloud-seeding.
Indonesia's National Disaster Management Agency told AFP that 2,081 fire "hotspots" were recorded on Thursday in the worst-affected region of Indonesia's Kalimantan territory on Borneo, and 290 on Sumatra.
A total of 27 companies are being investigated in connection with the forest fires, Indonesian authorities said, while 140 individuals are being questioned. A Singapore-listed company is among those under investigation.
Al Jazeera and wire services