Environment

Pollution at danger levels as choking haze blankets Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore

P1020084 (640x480)As a choking haze caused by illegal forest fires continues to blanket whole regions of three countries in Southeast Asia, a state of emergency has been declared in two Indonesian provinces, and schools have been closed in several states in Malaysia.

The pollution is caused by slash-and-burn fires, mostly on the Indonesian island of Sumatra and in Kalimantan on the island of Borneo. States of emergency have been declared in Riau on Sumatra and in Central Kalimantan.

In Riau, nearly 1,000 hotspots have been detected, and pollution is now at an extremely dangerous level. The Air Pollutants Index (API) reading hit a staggering 984 in the provincial capital, Pekanbaru, this week.

It is estimated that about 26,000 people in Riau are suffering from respiratory infections.

Forest and peqt fires in Riau. Photo by Julius Lawalata WRI.Fires in Riau. Photo by Julius Lawalata/World Resources Institute.

Singapore continues to be badly affected, with pollution remaining at an unhealthy level. The three-hour Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) reached 249 late last night (Monday).

Malaysia’s education ministry said in a statement late yesterday that the API was approaching 200 so all schools in Selangor, Kuala Lumpur, Putrajaya, Negeri Sembilan, and Melaka would be closed today.

By the early hours of this morning, the API recorded 211 in in Banting, Selangor.

In the Malaysian state of Sarawak on Borneo, four areas recorded unhealthy API readings today: Sri Aman (134), Sarikei (119), Samarahan (118), and Kuching (105).

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.

Fatalities

The environmental news website Mongabay reports that an elementary school student in Riau died of respiratory failure last week and two other children, aged 15 and two, passed away in Jambi, where fires have been blazing. It cannot be proved that the children’s deaths were caused by the haze, but, according to Jambiupdate.com, the father of 15-year-old Wahyuni said his daughter was suffering from a dry cough, which progressed to shortness of breath.

“We recognize our child had a congenital heart defect, but it was never as bad as this,” Trimo was quoted as saying.

Mongabay reports that, in the case of two-year-old Dimas Aditya Putra, her parents took her to a local clinic after she started vomiting frequently. The doctors diagnosed her with a lack of fluids and recommended she be hospitalised, but the family opted for outpatient care.

When her condition did not improve, her parents brought her back for further tests, Mongabay reports.

“The doctors said she had a clot in her back, and maybe it was because of the haze,” the girl’s grandmother, Wati, was quoted as saying. “What else could it be? In the past two days, the haze was so thick.”

In its report on the harrowing case of elementary student Hanum Angriawati, Mongaby states: “A paediatrician at the hospital, Riri Mahise, told news portal Riau Online that Hanum died of meningitis and lung irritation. The girl had a history of the disease, and Riri said there was indication of tuberculosis. In the end, the doctors couldn’t be sure whether Hanum’s infection was due to the latest outbreak of haze. They pronounced her dead from respiratory failure because of heaps of mucus in her right lung.”

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.

Citing health ministry data, Mongabay reports that in Riau, as of September 4, there were 10,133 cases of respiratory infection, 311 of pneumonia, 415 of asthma, 689 of eye pain, and 1,085 of skin pain.

The local Riau daily newspaper, Tribun Pekanbaru, quoted Indonesia’s Environment and Forestry Minister, Siti Nurbaya Bakar, as saying that local authorities in Riau had been instructed to open health posts.

Battling the blazes

This year’s forest fires in Indonesia are the worst since 1997, when the haze 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.

Siti Nurbaya said efforts douse the flames were being intensified and helicopters and planes were being used to water-bomb the blazes and conduct cloud seeding.

“As of now, 18 million litres of water have been poured into Riau and 12 million litres into South Sumatra – for water bombing, and for cloud seeding; 120 tonnes of salt have been used in Riau and another 56 tonnes in South Sumatra and Jambi,” she was quoted as saying.

The authorities in Malaysia have also started cloud-seeding, which involves dispersing silver iodide or dry ice (frozen carbon dioxide) into the clouds to provide nuclei for moisture to condense around.

Water in the clouds is supercooled to ice when it bonds with the chemical. When they are too heavy to remain suspended, the ice crystals fall and melt on the way to become rain.

Haze lingers over Singapore

In Singapore, the haze is unlikely to dissipate during the week, but there could be improvement over the weekend with a change in wind direction.

Singapore’s National Environment Agency (NEA) said that conditions may deteriorate tomorrow if denser haze from Sumatra is blown in by unfavourable winds. “The 24-hour PSI for the next 24 hours is expected to be in the mid to high sections of the “unhealthy” range, and may enter the low section of the “very unhealthy” range if denser haze from Sumatra is blown in,” the NEA said.

Meteorologists say the haze has been lingering over Singapore because of a tropical storm in the South China Sea.

Singapore’s Permanent Secretary for Environment and Water Resources, Choi Shing Kwok, said: “What we’ve been experiencing in the last few days is partly because of abnormal wind pattern brought about by a typhoon. That brought more dense haze over Sumatra into Singapore. That pattern is likely to continue until Friday or Saturday, when the typhoon has gone onshore.”

Channel News Asia reported that there had been a 7.8 per cent rise in the number of people going to polyclinics in Singapore during the current haze episode.

Levelling blame

Siti Nurbaya has told the Singaporean Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, Vivian Balakrishnan, that Indonesia will share with Singapore the names of companies suspected of causing forest fires.

The names will be shared once the information has been verified, Singapore’s NEA said in a statement.

Singapore passed a cross-border air pollution law last year that makes those who cause haze both criminally and civilly liable.

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.

Fires in national parks

Indonesia’s national parks are being ravaged by the current blazes. Global Forest Watch said earlier this month that 10 percent of fire alerts (148 fires) had occurred within protected areas.

“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.”

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.

fires3-1024x819Global Forest Watch fire heatmap, August 26 to September 2, 2015.

While blame has been levelled at palm oil companies, and there are large and small companies that clearly have fires blazing on their concessions, conservation scientist Erik Meijaard says that companies bear too much of the blame.

Meijaard, who coordinates the Borneo Futures initiative, said in an opinion column published in the Jakarta Globe on Monday 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.”

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 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.FB page

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: the famous Petronas twin towers, barely visible in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur today.

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