The state-level Merdeka Day celebration will be held on a small scale this year following a shift of its venue to Kuching, from Sibu, due to the Influenza A (H1N1) pandemic and haze.

Sarawak Environment and Public Health Minister Datuk Seri Wong Soon Koh said today the state government’s decision to change the venue to the Sarawak Indoor stadium at Petra Jaya here was a preventive measure to control the spread of H1N1 and to respect the fasting month.

“It will be a small but very significant launch on Aug 31 because we are not getting too many people involved and may do away with many of the contingents and just involve the uniformed groups,” he said.

He was speaking to reporters after launching the Sarawak Environmental Information Management System (Geoenviron System), an integrated database system for environment-related data and information, coordinated by the Sarawak Natural Resources and Environment Board.

He said this year’s celebration would not involve the participation of schoolchildren, especially in crowded places, as the spread of the virus was getting quite serious while the medical facilities in Sarawak might not be able to cope with the increasing number of cases.

Collective effort was needed from the local community to limit social activities or avoid big gatherings in view of the pandemic and the haze, which was expected to return by next week pending the prevailing wind directions, he said.

On the haze, Wong said it was the state’s policy to stop issuing permits for prescribed burning once the Air Pollutant Index (API) reading breached the 100 unhealthy level as had happened in several places in Sarawak in late July and early this month.

A ministerial meeting on haze pollution in Southeast Asia, held in Singapore on Wednesday, agreed to ban all open burning in the region and suspend permits for prescribed burning activities in fire-prone areas, including those in Malaysia and Indonesia.

“We are imposing self-regulating measures but enforcement is difficult because of the extended areas of localised open burning, especially by farmers, without proper control,” Wong said.

He said that with the RM1.8 million allocation from the state government to kick start the implementation of the GeoEnviron system over a two-year period from mid-last year, he said, environmental information could be disseminated through various means, such as the API and hotspot information made available at the NREB website.

It would also be an effective planning tool for the state regional development corridor, the Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy (Score), to ensure that the state’s development agenda conformed to the local and international environmental requirements, he said. — BERNAMA