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Singapore, Indonesia to hold talks on smog crisis

Update: June, 20/2013 - 11:30

SINGAPORE – Singapore and Indonesia were scheduled to hold emergency talks Thursday after thick smog from forest fires on Sumatra island reached unprecedented levels in the city-state.

Singapore said it was sending the chief executive of the National Environment Agency (NEA), Andrew Tan, to attend an emergency meeting to be hosted by Indonesia's foreign ministry in Jakarta on the haze crisis.

"We need urgent and definitive action by Indonesia to tackle the problem at source," said Vivian Balakrishnan, Singapore's minister for the environment and water resources.

"Singaporeans have lost patience, and are understandably angry, distressed and concerned." Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said he will meet "relevant ministers" on Thursday and hold a press conference on the situation. "Please stay indoors where possible and avoid heavy outdoor activities. Look out for one another we will get through this together," he said on his Facebook page.

Singapore's air pollutant index was still in the "unhealthy" band at mid-morning Thursday with a reading of 153 after spiking past the government-designated "hazardous" level of 300 the night before.

Smog was still visible as Singaporeans went to work on Thursday, and more commuters were seen wearing disposable medical masks than in previous days. The acrid odour of burnt wood could be smelled even inside the air-conditioned trains of Singapore's metro system.

Drug stores in the central business district were sold out of disposable masks and refused to take advance orders, telling customers to return the next day in case new stocks arrived.

The previous Singapore air pollutant index high of 226 was recorded in September 1997 at the height of a Southeast Asian calamity also resulting from vast amounts of haze from Indonesia, where slash-and-burn farming generates large amounts of smoke during the dry season that begins in June.

Singapore has urged children, the elderly, and those with heart or lung disease to avoid outdoor activities and seek medical treatment early if they feel unwell.

Local and international schools were already on summer holiday when the haze reached unhealthy levels at the start of the week. Parts of Malaysia close to Singapore have also been severely affected by the smog.

The Indonesian forestry ministry said Wednesday that it plans to use cloud seeding to try and unleash rain on Sumatra. Smallholders and plantations in Sumatra – some of them with Singaporean investors have been accused of using fire to clear land for cultivation, but big palm oil companies deny involvement in such activities.--AFP

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