Operation Haze

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Air pollution over Southeast Asia in October 1997

Operation Haze is the biggest cross border firefighting mission in history that involved teams of Malaysian firefighters across to Indonesia.


The haze first presented a considerable disruption to daily life in Malaysia in April 1983, which the cause for the haze were unknown and speculation attributed the causes to suspended ash particulates from volcanic eruptions, suspended smoke particulates from large-scale forest fires, open agricultural burning in neighbouring countries, as well as local agricultural burning.[1] The disruption continued in August 1990, from June to October 1991, and has recurred every year since 1992 to plague the months of August, September, and October. The effects of the haze reached their zenith in 1997 when the cause of the recent haze was points firmly towards forest and plantation fires in Southern Sumatra, Kalimantan, and some other islands of Indonesia as the sky remained dull with pollution from August until November of that year


Haze over Kuala Lumpur.
Haze obscuring the Faisal Mosque in Islamabad.

By September 1997, forest fires in Indonesia has been raging uncontrollably. The area where the fire took place was estimated to be the size of 4 million football pitches and was visible even from space. The Indonesian forest fires have produced noxious yellow smoke clouds that smothered a vast region of South East Asia, reaching as far as northern Australia. The clouds caused the air quality disaster known as the 1997 South East Asian haze. Millions of people are forced to wear masks and hundreds of death have been reported in Indonesia, as a direct or indirect result of a severe decline in air quality.

The impact of the Haze have caused the Air Pollution Index rises to alarmingly hazardous levels. In the Malaysian state of Sarawak, these API numbers hit record levels. In just six days, 10,000 people had sought treatment for haze related issues. In Malaysia, the Prime Minister is forced to declare a State of Emergency, closing schools, government offices and many shops all over the state, including constructions and industries, which ground to a halt. The total cost of the damage caused by the haze to Malaysia was estimated to be RM802 million or US$321 million, for the period between August to October 1997. The damage caused by the haze affected the GDP by an estimated 0.30 per cent.[2] The haze have even affected gas turbines’ outputs at Kuala Langat Power Plant (KLPP), Malaysia. It was hypothesized that gas turbine combustions during haze-free periods when oxygen level would be sufficient to achieve perfect or near perfect combustion. However, during the period when the haze occurred, the air could contain less amounts of oxygen that could affect optimal combustion that needed to be sustained.[3]

The Malaysian Prime Minister during that time, Dr Mahathir, searched desperately for a solution.[4] The head of the Malaysian fire and rescue department came up with a plan to send a team of Malaysian firefighters across to Indonesia.


Operation Haze become the biggest cross border firefighting mission in history. Malaysian firefighters fought a desperate battle with the fires raging across Sumatra and Kalimantan over 25 days. The firefighters teams also face insurmountable obstacle of large number of fires encountered. At the peak of massive forest and land fires, the numbers of hotspots reaches 37,938, which occurred in August 1997.[5] Healthy looking trees could fall upon them as it base burned out. Peat fires pose worst risk as the firefighters can dropped in fire pits as the fires burn deep underground.

There they encounter huge problems raging from the lack of right equipment, facing no water source to fight the fires with, up to the problem of identifying the source of the fires deep in the peat land. Finally, after 25 days, they managed to battle the haze such that visibility to the sky is restored. Also, with the help of monsoon rains, the haze threat was finally over.

Post operations[edit]

At the end of it all, a total of between 8 - 10 million hectares of forest cover is destroyed, an estimated 40,000 people seek hospital treatment and many deaths are reported, tourism is severely impacted and an estimated up to 10 billion US dollars in losses are recorded across the region.

Future mitigating plans[edit]

As part of steps taken to avoid the recurring of the Haze, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) approved the need for an early warning system in the Regional Haze Action Plan (RHAP) in 1998 to prevent forest fires and the resulting haze through improved management policies and enforcements, example via Fire Danger Rating System (FDRS)[6]

In addition, Malaysia and Indonesian come up with a Disaster Cooperation and Assistance which was signed by H.E. Datuk Seri Mohamed bin Rahmat, who is the National Disaster Management and Relief Committee Chairman as well as the Minister of Information, on behalf of the Malaysian Government and H.E. Dato’ Seri Utama ft. Azwar Anas, Coordinating Minister for People’s Welfare and also Chairman of the Indonesia National Disaster Management Coordinating Board (BAKORNAS-PB) on behalf of the Indonesian Government.[7]


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