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Indonesian forest fires putting 10 million children at risk: UN

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Children are especially vulnerable due to undeveloped immune systems, it says

JAKARTA: Indonesian forest fires are putting nearly 10 million children at risk from air pollution, the United Nations warned yesterday, as scientists said the blazes were releasing vast amounts of greenhouse gases.

The fires have been spewing toxic haze over South-east Asia in recent weeks, closing schools and airports.

Jakarta has deployed tens of thousands of personnel and water-bombing aircraft to tackle the blazes set to clear agricultural land. This year's fires are the worst since 2015 due to dry weather.

Almost 10 million people under 18 - about a quarter below five years old - live in the areas worst affected by fires on Indonesia's Sumatra island and its part of Borneo island, the UN children's agency Unicef said.

Small children are especially vulnerable due to undeveloped immune systems while babies born to women exposed to pollution during pregnancy may have low birth weights, it said.

Thousands of schools have been closed across Indonesia due to poor air quality, with millions of youngsters missing classes. Schools were forced to shut across Malaysia last week as dense smog clouded the skies. Singapore was also shrouded in haze during the weekend's Formula One motor race.

But air quality improved in Malaysia and Singapore yesterday. The Pollutant Standards Index was at 81 in the moderate range in Singapore at 7.45pm.

The Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service said this year's Indonesian fires were releasing almost as much carbon dioxide as the blazes in 2015, the worst for two decades.

In weeks, the fires in Indonesia and Brazil have released more than the total annual greenhouse gas emissions of Australia. It is like putting 145 million average cars on the road for a year, showed figures from the US Environmental Protection Agency.

Greenpeace said in a report yesterday that Indonesian laws are not tough enough. "Many of the palm oil and pulp groups with the largest burned areas have either not received any serious civil or administrative sanctions, or have had sanctions imposed that do not appear to fit with the level or frequency of burning," it said.

Director general of law enforcement at Indonesia's Environment and Forestry Ministry Rasio Ridho Sani said law enforcement had been "very strict" and Indonesia was studying a plan for harsher penalties. - AFP, THE STRAITS TIMES, REUTERS