(EnergyAsia, June 24 2013, Monday) — Ships sailing the congested narrow straits off Malaysia and Singapore are at risk of accidents from poor visibility caused by record-thick smog set off by forest fires on the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

With more than 140 ships from oil tankers to container ships and passenger ferries sailing the Straits of Malacca and Singapore every day, the Singapore Shipping Association (SSA) said there was growing risk of accidents including oil spills if vessels collided.

For more than a week, Singapore and large parts of Malaysia have been enveloped by smog caused by uncontrolled burning of large tracts of rainforests on Sumatra. The governments of the three countries along with environmental groups have unanimously blamed large plantation owners of polluting the region’s air through their uncontrolled and indiscriminate burning to clear the forest for growing oil palm trees.

The annual forest-burning exercises, which inevitably cause the smog, have been taking place since 1996, but, astonishingly, no major companies have been brought to court.

The smog hit a record 401 on Singapore’s pollution standard index (PSI) last Friday, deemed to be potentially fatal to the elderly and those suffering from heart and respiratory illnesses. Many businesses have come to a standstill as people have been told to stay indoors. The Singapore government has warned that the environmental crisis could continue through August with no sign that the fires could be put under control soon.

“The SSA is gravely concerned with the effects of the worsening hazy conditions on the safe navigation of ships through the Straits of Malacca and Singapore,” the association said in a statement.

Daniel Tan, its executive director, said:

“Reduced visibility in such heavy shipping traffic will definitely affect the safe navigation of ships in the straits.

“In the event of any accident, human lives and the marine environment will be at risk, especially if it involves a fully laden very large crude carriers (VLCC).

“The oil spillage from the tanker can have serious consequences not only on the marine life in the straits but also affect the livelihood of fishermen and those who depend on the tourist industry.”

The SSA has advised ships to pay close attention to safety broadcasts and to navigate the straits in accordance with the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea.

It ended its statement by appealing to the Indonesian government “to put an urgent stop to the indiscriminate ‘slash and burn’ method of land clearing in Sumatra.”

Formed in 1985, the SSA represents more than 450 shipping companies and other businesses allied to the shipping industry. Its members include shipowners and operators, managers, agents, brokers, classification societies, marine insurers, bunker suppliers, maritime lawyers and bankers.