Photo: Shiny towers.

1997 was not a vintage year for Malaysia. Not only was the country battered by the Asian financial crisis, it also had to deal with an air pollution disaster. At its height, the 1997 smog covered about 3,000 square kilometres of Southeast Asia. Malaysia was particularly badly affected, with Sarawak recording some of the highest air pollution scores of all time. Being there at the time posed a similar health danger to smoking several packets of cigarettes a day.

Eight years later, the haze hit again, this time concentrated mainly on Peninsular Malaysia. Health officials warned citizens in Kuala Lumpur to stay indoors, with their doors and windows closed. The situation was even worse in Port Klang, where a state of emergency was declared. As in 1997, the haze was blamed on a combination of factors, including forest fires in Indonesia; hot, dry winds; and a lack of rain.

Fast forward to September 2011, and the same set of factors is at work, bringing increasingly hazy skies to Greater KL. The Air Pollution Index readings are not nearly as bad as either 2005 or 1997, mainly because Indonesia has become much better at containing forest fires. But as long as the rain holds off, air quality will remain a cause for concern.

Whenever Malaysia is hit by haze it likes to shift all the blame onto Indonesia. While it is true that forest fires exacerbate the problem, hot dry winds and a lack of rain are not something that Jakarta can do anything about. The topography of KL also plays a role; sitting in a valley, surrounded by hills, helps to trap in air pollution. Much of this pollution is caused by burning fossil fuels, which the Malaysian government does next to nothing to control. In fact, it actively encourages car use by massively subsidising the price of petrol.

KL’s roads see an ever increasing number of vehicles, all of them belching toxic fumes. For much of the year, the air pollution does not have a chance to gather, because of regular rain storms. But unless something is done to reduce car usage, air pollution will get so bad that no amount of rain will clear it.

As yet, the current haze in KL does not pose a serious health risk to anyone who does not have a respiratory complaint. The city’s latest API readings are in the 80s, which are still categorised as “moderate”. Many other parts of the Klang Valley though are edging towards 100, above which the air quality is officially described as “unhealthy”. For the latest API readings, follow this link.


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Where to next?

Where are you planning on heading to after Kuala Lumpur? Here are some spots commonly visited from here, or click here to see a full destination list for Malaysia.

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