Britain yesterday announced $100,000 (pounds 62,500) in aid to combat the smog.Last week, Lim Kit Siang, Malaysia’s opposition leader, made the analogy explicit. “Malaysia has achieved another impossibility – the Air Pollution Index overshooting the 800 mark while the Kuala Lumpur Stock Exchange Composite Index falls below 800,” he said. In the past few weeks confidence in the region’s economies has begun to crumble. This collapse is only related to the smog by an accident of timing, but it is a coincidence whose political repercussions will reverberate long after the smog has cleared. “It is a measure of the very troubled state Malaysia has found herself in the past two months.”World food crisis, page 18. The smog affecting south-east Asia may be the most politically significant environmental event yet.
Even if the mysterious workings of El Nino have exacerbated the situation, the smoke is a man-made disaster which the region’s governments have been unable to prevent. Enterprises of all kinds are being disrupted by cancelled flights, slowed traffic and choking employees. In the Philippines, fishermen were forced to remain in harbour. Foreign embassies and companies have started flying their employees and families out for breather breaks. The effect on tourism will be devastating – last week Thomas Cook announced a freeze on all holidays to the area.In its geographical spread and knock-on effects, the haze is an eerie correlative for the currency crisis which spread through the region.
“We’ve never had such an experience in any other part of the world covering such a large area. Normally, bush fires affect rural areas with small populations.”But even those not exposed to the pollution will be affected by its economic consequences. Cigarettes may turn out to be trivial compared to exposure to smog, which pervades the respiratory system 24 hours a day. “Cancer known to be caused by this haze will occur in 10 to 20 years,” said Hisashi Ogawa, of the World Health Organisation. Apart from short-term ailments such as asthma, bronchitis and conjunctivitis, toxic gases could be laying the foundations for deadly illness years in the future. Over 10,000 people there had visited hospital.All over the region motorists drive with headlights on through a crepuscular gloom, but the pervasive smell of smoke lingers even indoors. President Suharto last week declared the smog a national disaster.