Smoky pall over Southeast Asia Sumatra fires: Sovereign boundaries areno defense against air pollution.

October 01, 1997

GLOOM, AND SMOKE, shroud the economic miracle of Southeast Asia as bank losses and currency runs in Thailand spread to Indonesia and Malaysia. The construction frenzy, typified by competitive skyscraper heights, is petering out. People cannot see the buildings of Kuala Lumpur and Singapore through the thickening haze. Worst of all, they have trouble breathing.

A confluence of three disasters -- two human and one natural -- is producing the world's worst smog since London in 1952, after which coal burning was banished there. On Indonesia's island of Sumatra, farmers and agribusinesses are burning valuable forest to enlarge agriculture. Some are merely using fire to clear out the annual crop, as many Ohio farmers do.

But El Nino, the Pacific weather pattern, created a drought that by itself imperils Indonesia and threatens Australia. The fires could not be put out. Despite a respite in some areas from rains on Monday, the fires continue, producing smoke that has covered much of Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei and Singapore and affects parts of Thailand and the Philippines. The clouds move eastward.

In Singapore and such Malaysian cities as Kuala Lumpur and Kuching and in Indonesian cities, where overpopulation, economic development, factories and automobiles were producing a Mexico City effect of smog anyway, the forest smoke compounds the haze. An airliner crashed in it in Sumatra.

Nationalism is no defense. The tirades of Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, blaming Western interests for the currency debacle, are eclipsed by the smoke. Sovereign national boundaries are no defense. Mr. Mahathir sent a navy shipload of 1,200 firefighters to help deal with the root of the problem in sovereign Indonesia. They were most welcome. Rural and urban development, for which these countries are justly celebrated, combine as menace.

In time, the winds will shift, rain will return and the fires will die out. But when the Southeast Asian boom returns, any lessons learned from the debacle will likely be forgotten. Meanwhile, people are coughing and choking, where nature refused its designated role as antidote to human folly.

Pub Date: 10/01/97

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