Burning Forests Lead to Restricted Visibility Warnings off Sabah

Smoke plumes from fires over southern (Indonesian) Borneo and haze obscuring the northern (Malaysian) half of the island (NASA / NOAA / JPL / Suomi)

Published Sep 13, 2019 5:46 PM by The Maritime Executive

Air pollution from burning forests has grown so bad on the east coast of Sabah, Malaysia that maritime officials have asked operators to exercise caution due to the restricted visibility conditions.

“We advise all maritime users to take precautions especially in Tawau waters which is also the route for commercial vessels and big boats,” said Mohd Yusri Hussin, the deputy director of operations for the Tawau zone of the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA), speaking to Bernama. “We should not only chase profits when our lives and the lives of the passengers are at stake. We need to take precautions regarding safety,”

Malaysia's government accuses Indonesian plantation owners and farmers of fueling the haze with giant forest fires, which are typically set in order to burn off natural habitat but sometimes grow out of control. In Indonesia, over two million acres have burned in recent weeks, and Singaporean environmental agency NEA says that it has identified nearly 1,300 hot spots - fires - in Kalimantan and Sumatra.  

The fires have sent air pollution levels soaring in nearby Malaysia and Singapore: More than half of Malaysia's states and territories have logged "unhealthy" air quality levels over the past day, with pollution levels registering up to four times worse than Beijing's. 

In Sarawak, Malaysia, where the haze has been especially bad, Deputy Chief Minister James Masing told the Malay Mail that Indonesia's government should buy face masks for Malaysian citizens. "Until they suffer economically, they will not take our complaints seriously," Masing said. Over 400 schools have been closed in Sarawak due to concerns over air pollution and health.