SEA Games: Malaysia urges Indonesia to keep a lid on haze

In this picture taken on March 30, 2016, a general view shows Malaysia's landmark Petronas Twin Towers (2nd R) and Kuala Lumpur Tower (L) as a layer of haze covers the city during sunset in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. (AFP Photo/Mohd Rasfan)

Malaysia's sports minister has urged Indonesia to ensure that haze from raging forest fires does not affect the Southeast Asian Games this month, a report said Wednesday.

Malaysia will host the major multi-sport event from August 19-30, with thousands of athletes from across the region descending on the capital Kuala Lumpur to take part.

However there have been fears that choking smog from the fires in neighbouring Indonesia could float over Malaysia during the games.

The haze is an annual problem caused by slash-and-burn fires started to clear land for palm oil and pulp and paper plantations. It often blows over Malaysia and Singapore, causing flight cancellations, school closures and soaring rates of respiratory illness.

Malaysian Sports Minister Khairy Jamaluddin played down fears that the games would be affected by haze, saying he did not believe there was currently a threat and Indonesia had improved efforts to tackle the problem.

But he said Jakarta still needed to take precautions.

"I hope Indonesia will be able to control this problem so it does not affect (the games)," he was quoted as saying in the New Straits Times newspaper.

"I believe they will be embarrassed if it does affect the SEA Games as they, too, are competing here."

The blazes normally peak in September and October. 

But there has already been an early spike on Indonesia's western island of Sumatra -- one of the main areas hit by blazes each year -- with dozens of people treated for lung infections and some schools closed in Aceh province last month.

Indonesia's national disaster agency says there are currently about 160 "hotspots" across the country. These are areas detected by satellite that are either on fire or intensely hot and likely soon to go up in flames.

This is significantly lower than the number in 2015, when huge fires triggered a weeks-long environmental catastrophe that sent haze billowing as far as southern Thailand, causing thousands to fall ill and sending diplomatic tensions soaring. – AFP