A choking haze is again blanketing whole regions in three Southeast Asian countries, causing untold damage to people’s health. The pollution is caused by illegal slash-and-burn fires, mostly on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, and in Kalimantan on the island of Borneo.
The worst haze is on Sumatra. A pollution reading of 515.63 was recorded at Palembang on September 10, according to Indonesia’s meteorology agency.
Six Indonesian provinces – Riau, Jambi and South Sumatra, and three provinces in Kalimantan – have been put on emergency alert status. Many flights have been delayed or cancelled.
Indonesia’s National Disaster Mitigation Agency said on Friday that more than 10,000 troops would be sent in to fight fires in southern Sumatra. Helicopters are being used in the operation to douse the flames.
Singapore has also been badly affected, with a Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) reading reaching 211.
In Malaysia, 18 areas in several states on the peninsula and in Sarawak recorded unhealthy air pollutant index (API) readings yesterday (Saturday).
The Batu Muda area of the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, recorded the highest Air Pollutant Index (API) reading: 163 at 8 a.m. yesterday.
On Borneo, in the Samarahan district of Sarawak, an API level of 172 was recorded between midnight and 1 a.m. On Friday afternoon, Samarahan hit 184 on the pollution scale.
Educational establishments were not closed, but outdoor activities in schools in the worst affected areas were suspended.
A pollutant index reading of between 0 and 50 is categorised as good, 51 to 100 is moderate, 101 to 200 is considered to be unhealthy, 201 to 300 is very unhealthy, and above 300 is considered to be hazardous.
N95 face masks give protection from the particles in the air during haze episodes, but few people wear them, and, in Malaysia and Indonesia, there is very little public education about the haze and its dangers.
Pollution levels are often so high in places like Pekanbaru – the capital of Riau province in Sumatra – that people can do little to protect themselves except for staying inside in an airtight room, which is rarely feasible.
The haze causes innumerable health problems ranging from asthma, breathing problems, and headaches to skin rashes and lung, eye, and skin problems.
Greenpeace says that modelling by researchers in 2012 attributed an average of 110,000 deaths a year in Riau to peat and forest fires.
“These deaths are primarily associated with long-term seasonal exposure to smoke particles,” said the forest campaigner at Greenpeace Southeast Asia, Yuyun Indradi. “This increases to nearly 300,000 deaths during an El Niño year.”
This year is an El Niño year and there have been warnings that the 2015 dry season could last longer because of this.
A decades-long problem
Haze pollution is a problem that has been afflicting Southeast Asia for decades.
In October and November 1997, the haze from fires in Indonesia spread as far the Philippines to the north, Sri Lanka to the west, and northern Australia to the south. In the Malaysian state of Sarawak on Borneo, there was a pollution index reading of 860.
There was heavy pressure on Indonesia after the haze crises in 2013 and 2014 and the country finally ratified the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution (AAHTP) last September.
Indonesia says it is unfair to accuse it of being solely to blame for the haze pollution. The government has said there are companies based in Singapore that are contributing to the problem.
In a comment piece published in the Jakarta Post on Wednesday, lecturer in international relations Verdinand Robertua points to studies that show a lack of willingness on the part of the leaders of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member states to “sacrifice” some of their national sovereignty for the sake of the community.
“According to Lidia Fera Kogoya, a student studying the impact of the agreement on forest fires, the AAHTP is a failure because individual ASEAN governments are not serious about implementing the treaty,” Robertua writes. “One important follow-up should be an ASEAN haze center to coordinate haze policies.”
Robertua says some companies with links to the Indonesian government are believed to have bribed officials, enabling support of their continued illegal practices. “Underpaid government officials, combined with the prevalence of disreputable businesspeople and politicians, mean logging bans go unenforced, trafficking in endangered species is overlooked, environmental regulations are ignored, parks become timber farms and fines and prison sentences never come to pass.”
Indonesian farmers and transnational companies have to comply with regulations and apply zero-burning techniques, Robertua says. “Indonesian police must seriously enforce the law. ASEAN must empower states to prevent and mitigate the impact of fires. Large palm oil-consuming companies like Unilever should apply strict standards for the suppliers of their raw materials.”
2013 and 2014
In recent years, Thailand has also been affected by the haze. The pollution in 2013 was so severe that states of emergency were declared in several areas of Indonesia and Malaysia, and Singapore recorded the highest level of pollution in the country’s history.
In June 2013, air pollution levels hit 401 in Singapore and reached 746 in Muar in Malaysia’s Johor state.
It was estimated that half of the blazes in 2013 started on oil palm and pulpwood plantations.
The US-based World Resources Institute (WRI) says that, in 2014, 66 percent of the fire alerts occurred within the boundaries of oil palm, logging, and pulpwood concessions.
National park is set ablaze
In July, the WRI said fires were again threatening some of the most biodiverse and carbon-rich ecosystems in Indonesia – the country’s forests and peatlands.
The greatest concentration of fire alerts was in the Riau province of Sumatra, the WRI said, and a rash of fires were burning in the Tesso Nilo National Park, which is one of the last large areas of lowland tropical rainforest in Indonesia and is home to critically endangered Sumatran elephants and tigers.
According to NASA’s Active Fire Data on the Global Forest Watch Fires platform, half of the fire alerts in Riau province in June and July this year occurred in protected areas or those where new development is prohibited under Indonesia’s national forest moratorium.
“An alarming 38 percent of Riau’s fire alerts are on carbon-rich peatlands, releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and fuelling global climate change,” the WRI said.
Global Forest Watch says that the districts with the most fire alerts are now Tanjung Jabung Timur in Sumatra, with 178 high confidence fire alerts, and Ketapang in Kalimantan, with 126.
“Fire hotspots continue to occur in Indonesia’s protected areas, with 10 percent of fire alerts (148 fires) occurring within protected areas,” Global Forest Watch said. “Fires continue to occur within Tesso Nilo National Park, mainly in areas already cleared of forest. Active fires are also occurring within Tanjung Puting National Park, Berbak National Park, Sembilang National Park, Dangku Wildlife Reserve, and along the perimeter of Kerinci Seblat National Park.”
In a post on the Global Forest Watch website on September 3, writers Susan Minnemeyer, Lisa Johnston, and Tania Firdausy said: “For the week ending September 2, 2015, 50 percent of the high confidence fire alerts are occurring on peat lands. Fires on peat (soil with a high proportion of partially decomposed organic material) are of particular concern because these fires are difficult to extinguish and produce great amounts of smoke and haze, contributing to poor air quality in Singapore and Malaysia, but especially within Sumatra, Indonesia.”
They continued: “Indonesia fire alerts spiked to their highest level of the year yesterday, amid forecasts that the developing El Nino may be even stronger than the 1997-98 warming that led to Indonesia’s most catastrophic fire season. With 461 high confidence fire alerts, today’s count is the highest since the peak of over 1,000 fire alerts reached on November 1, 2014. As the El Nino develops, even larger fire outbreaks are likely to develop.”
The WRI has called on Indonesia’s president Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and the Minister of Environment and Forestry, Siti Nurbaya Bakar, to take swift action and strengthen the protection of forests under the country’s national moratorium.
Companies being investigated
Quoting Siti Nurbaya, speaking on Tuesday, the Indonesian weekly magazine Tempo reported that Indonesia was investigating 10 companies about the forest fires and had threatened those companies with sanctions if they are found to have violated their permits.
Sanctions range from a written warning to a fine or the revoking of a firm’s permit.
Siti Nurbaya named only one of the 10 companies under investigation, a small private company called Tempirai Palm Resources, Tempo said.
Large palm oil companies often blame smallholders for the fires, but the companies have been criticised by environmental groups for not doing enough to stop the haze or the widespread deforestation and destruction of carbon-rich peatlands in Indonesia.
According to Tempo, Siti Nurbaya said on Thursday that findings reported by the environment ministry’s law enforcement team led investigators to believe that the forest fires in West Kalimantan, South Sumatra, and Riau were started on oil palm plantations.
President Jokowi paid an impromptu visit to South Sumatra last Sunday. He said he had ordered the country’s police chief to get very tough on companies that did not comply with the law, and had instructed the forestry minister to revoke the licences of companies found guilty of criminal charges.
Scientist says companies are being unfairly targeted
Conservation scientist Erik Meijaard, who coordinates the Borneo Futures initiative, said in an opinion column published in the Jakarta Globe on Monday that companies bear too much of the blame.
Meijaard criticised Jokowi for blaming “disobedient plantation companies for setting the fires to clear land for planting”, as the president was quoted as saying in a recent Globe article. Environmental activists also point to plantation companies for being the biggest cause of fires and haze, Meijaard added.
Meijaard said that studies in Sumatra and Kalimantan “firmly point towards small-scale farmers and other under-the-radar, mid-scale land-owners, rather than large companies as the main cause of fires and haze”.
A study published in August 2015 in the journal “Environmental Research Letters” clearly shows that, on Sumatra, 59 percent of fire emissions originate from outside timber and oil-palm concession boundaries, Meijaard says. “These non-concession-related fires generated 62 percent of smoke exposure in equatorial Southeast Asia (primarily Singapore and Malaysia).”
In Kalimantan, Meijaard adds, non-concession fires play an even bigger role. “Fires outside concessions generated 73 percent of all emissions and 76 percent of smoke affecting equatorial Southeast Asia.”
These findings, Meijaard says, are in line with similar results based on more detailed studies in Riau and published in Nature in 2014. “In Riau, 52 percent of the total burned area in 2013 was within concessions. However, 60 percent of these burned areas were occupied and used by small-and medium-landholders.”
Meijaard says the fire and haze problem in Indonesia is complex. “Focusing on large concessions alone, which the Indonesian government and also non-government organizations seem to do, is not going to do much to reduce the problem.”
In Kalimantan and Sumatra burning land for agriculture, for hunting, or just for fun is a favorite pastime of many people, Meijaard adds. “Most districts have laws in place that prohibit this kind of burning, but the big issue is that no one pays any heed to these laws and consequently they are largely ignored.”
Meijaard says the Indonesian government should shift its emphasis from fire-fighting to fire prevention, and step up law enforcement.
“On Sumatra, where most fire emissions are generated from peat lands, the government has to stop giving out concession licenses on coastal peats … In Kalimantan, where burning by local communities plays an even bigger role than in Sumatra, the focus may need to be more on stopping unsustainable slash-and-burn cultivation activities, especially in peat lands.”
The government, Meijaard says, needs to develop solid agricultural support programmes that provide subsidies for non-destructive land uses.
“Ultimately, Indonesia urgently needs to start taking the costs of development into consideration and not just focus on the benefits.”
On social media
Facebook and Twitter are full of comments about the haze. Indonesian cartoonist Dhany Pramata, who shared a drawing on Twitter about the haze, told the BBC’s Indonesian Service: “It has been two months. I can smell the burning haze, I’ve suffered from dizziness, eye irritation, out of breath even inside the house.”
One KL resident, Chan Jer Ping (pictured left), commented on his Facebook page that, after more than 15 years of annual haze, Indonesia had said it didn’t have enough fire-fighting equipment. “Is there any political will to stop the burning in the first place?” he asked.
In Singapore, there is now a Facebook page called the “People’s Movement to Stop Haze”. The aim is to share articles about the haze and gather pledges of support for sustainable palm oil.
The WRI has called on the public to help monitor the fires in Indonesia by going to the GFW Fires website. People can post their tweets on the GFW map, submit stories from the ground, and share with their networks.
Users can track forest fires and haze in the ASEAN region. If you click on the “sign up for alerts” button, you can get automatic email or SMS notifications of fire alerts in specific areas.
In Malaysia, the public can access API readings here.
In Singapore, PSI readings can be accessed here.
Singapore has special haze updates here.
Headline photo: Putrajaya in Kuala Lumpur. Photo courtesy of the Environmental Protection Agency.