Jakarta: Malaysia`s government Sunday declared a state of emergency in two southern districts choked by smog from forest fires in Indonesia as air pollution levels reached 16-year-highs.
Environment minister G. Palanivel said the air pollutant index (API) hit 750 in the town of Muar -- a 16-year high for Malaysia -- Sunday morning, with two other towns also reaching hazardous levels.
"The prime minister has signed a declaration of emergency for Muar and Ledang districts," Palanivel told AFP in a text message.
Haze is an annual problem during drier summer months, when westerly monsoon winds blow smoke from forest fires and slash-and-burn land-clearing on the Indonesian island of Sumatra across the Malacca Strait to Malaysia and Singapore.
Malaysia`s API indicated that the capital Kuala Lumpur was also experiencing "unhealthy" air which has limited visibility to one kilometre (less than a mile), according to Palanivel.
The highest ever API reading was 860 during the 1997-1998 haze crisis that gripped the region.
An emergency was declared in 2005 when readings soared above 500.
Hundreds of schools have been closed since Thursday in Muar, which has a population of about 250,000.
Many Malaysians have begun wearing face masks as a precaution as the pollution levels have climbed.
The annual haze problem is blamed by Indonesia`s neighbours for affecting tourism and public health.
Singapore and Indonesia have lashed out at each other in recent days after the smog hit "critical" levels which the island-state said was potentially life-threatening to its ill and elderly.
Indonesia`s government has outlawed the use of fire to clear land, but weak enforcement means the ban is largely ignored.
Indonesia, meanwhile, has blamed Malaysian and Singapore-based palm oil companies for allowing slash and burn on estates they own on Sumatra.
The haze hit its worst levels in 1997-1998, costing Southeast Asia an estimated $9 billion from disruptions to air travel and other business activities.