Large swathes of the islands of Sumatra and Borneo are still blanketed by choking pollution caused by illegal forest burning. The number of haze-related fatalities is difficult to calculate, but deaths are occuring, and tens of thousands of people are suffering from respiratory and other illnesses.
On Monday, Indonesia’s Jakarta-based Centre for Orangutan Protection reported that the house of one of its workers, Paulinus Kristanto, burnt down in a blaze in West Kalimantan on Borneo, and his grandfather, Donatus Pandji Willem, was killed.
States of emergency have been declared in several provinces in Indonesia.
Protests took place outside the governor’s office in Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan, yesterday during which demonstrators criticised what they consider to be Indonesian government inaction in tackling the forest fires.
The protesters called for disaster management teams to be organised in advance to safeguard people’s health, and for sanctions to be levelled against those who burn land for profit.
The demonstrators included students and activists from about ten different organisations. They braved horrendous conditions, with the pollutant index in Palangkaraya reported to have hit a staggering 1,990.
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.
In the West Kalimantan city of Pontianak, the pollution level was reported to have reached 706 yesterday. In Singapore, the Pollutant Standard Index (PSI) remained in the unhealthy range in several areas.
In Riau province, nearly 1,000 hotspots were detected last week, and pollution was at an extremely dangerous level. The Air Pollutants Index (API) reading hit 984 in the provincial capital, Pekanbaru.
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.
It is estimated that about 26,000 people in Riau are suffering from respiratory infections.
British expat teacher Andy Short, who lives in Medan, Sumatra, and runs an organisation called Sumatra Environmental Education Concern, says he, his wife, and his two children have been sick for three weeks. “The children have missed over a week of school so far, and have chest and nasal infections, sore throats, and fever. It’s the same for many students in our school. This is not flu that is going round; it is a direct result of the pollution.
“I have also had all of the above and eye infections from riding a motorcycle daily in the smoke. This is a public health crime, and is completely avoidable.”
Delita Sartika, writing for The Jakarta Post and the Asia News Network last week, said that when she scrolled through pictures of the pollution, she remembered how distressing and unpleasant it felt to breathe the thick air full of dangerous particulates for months. “The smoke also causes dry and itchy eyes that last for days. I cannot even compare it to living in a place where people smoke cigarettes. There is no break or escape from the smoke. People simply have to live in such conditions 24/7, continuously inhaling the poisonous air.”
Pekanbaru MP Roni Amriel has been quoted as saying the city is no longer liveable because of the haze. He has reportedly urged the municipal government to start evacuating residents.
Visibility in Pekanbaru was reduced to between 100 and 200 metres last week, and in some places in Riau, it went down to 50 metres.
The Straits Times quoted Slamet Budiarto, who heads the Jakarta chapter of the Indonesian Doctors’ Association, as saying the recent pollutant standard reading of 984 in Pekanbaru should trigger an evacuation.
He said that, at that level, the haze could cause nausea and physical weakness and, in the long term, could lead to cancer.
Many Pekanbaru residents have left the city already. The Singapore-based New Straits Times quoted one resident, university lecturer Benny Sukma Negara, who fled to West Sumatra last week, as saying: “The haze has permeated into our house over the last three days and it’s getting worse. We wore a mask even inside our home.”
Air pollution kills millions annually
New findings about deaths from air pollution were published in the journal “Nature” last Wednesday.
According to the findings of a team led by researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Germany, air pollution kills 3.3 million people per year. The researchers said that number could double by 2050 if nothing is done to lessen pollution, especially in Asia.
The number of premature deaths linked to air pollution is higher than the annual death toll from HIV and malaria combined, according to the report’s lead author, Jos Lelieveld.
The researchers found that emissions from residential energy use such as heating and cooking had the largest impact on premature mortality globally. In much of the United States, and in several other countries, emissions from traffic and power generation had a significant impact, they said, whereas in the eastern US, Europe, Russia and East Asia, agricultural emissions made the largest relative contribution to PM2.5 (pollution particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers).
Who is to blame?
According to the news agency Reuters, Indonesia’s Environment and Forestry Ministry has ordered four companies to suspend operations because they have allegedly caused forest fires.
There are reports that three of the companies are palm oil companies, which are reported to have had their permits frozen. One forestry company is reported to have had its licence revoked. All the companies are reported to be Indonesian-owned.
The Indonesian government is reported to be investigating 276 business entities suspected to have caused forest fires. The Environment and Forestry Minister, Siti Nurbaya Bakar, was quoted as saying most of the entities were palm oil companies whose permits were issued by district heads.
“In total, there are 276 suspected business entities. Some are not yet identified as they turned out to be cooperatives and HGU (land title for industrial purposes) business holders,” Siti Nurbaya was quoted as saying.
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.
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 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).”
According to GFW data, only three per cent of the hot spots recorded between September 7 and 14 were on oil palm concessions.
GFW’s analysis of accumulated hot spots for that week showed 48 per cent of fires were outside pulpwood, logging, and palm oil concessions. Of the remainder, 48 per cent were on pulpwood concessions.
Government action – and inaction
Three Indonesian provinces – Riau, Jambi and Central Kalimantan – have been placed on “emergency response” status and three others – South Sumatra, West Kalimantan, and South Kalimantan – have been on “emergency alert”.
Nearly three thousand military and police personnel have been deployed to help extinguish the fires in Kalimantan and Sumatra.
There has been widespread criticism of government inaction over the years. The haze is an annual problem and there have been few prosecutions for illegal burning.
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.
The Singaporean parliament, meanwhile, passed its own Transboundary Haze Pollution Act in August last year.
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.”
Writing in the Malay Mail Online, associate professor of law at the Singapore Management University School of Law, Eugene K.B. Tan, said the new pollution Act sought to enhance Singapore’s ability to deal with transboundary haze. “But it can and must do more if it is not to be a paper tiger,” he wrote.
The Act, Eugene K.B. Tan said, had extra-territorial reach enabling Singapore courts to exercise power beyond Singapore’s territorial limits. It also covered acts of commission and omission, whether such conduct occurred within or outside of Singapore, that resulted in haze pollution in Singapore.
“The serious episodes of transboundary air pollution in 1994, 1997, 2006, 2010, 2013 and the ongoing haze are a stark reminder that while strong laws and patient diplomacy are necessary, they are insufficient in dealing with the problem.”
While the Act was limited to entities with a presence in Singapore, its successful operation is not something entirely within the control of the Singapore authorities, Eugene K.B. Tan says. “Instead, the strong cooperation of foreign authorities is required for any successful prosecution and enforcement.”
Record number of fire alerts
The Global Forest Watch (GFW) programme, run by the Washington-based World Resources Institute (WRI), produces daily analyses on the fires in Indonesia.
In an article posted on the GFW website on September 16, authors Susan Minnemeyer, Tjokorda Nirarta “Koni” Samadhi and Nigel Sizer said that fire alerts in Indonesia had surged even higher than the crisis-level outbreaks of June 2013, March 2014, and November 2014.
Satellite feeds shown on Global Forest Watch Fires had recorded thousands of high-confidence fire alerts over the previous two weeks, peaking at 1,189 on September 8, which exceeded the highest peaks of the previous two years.
More than half of the fires were occurring on carbon-rich peat soils, the authors said. “Pollution from the fires in the provinces of Sumatra and Kalimantan is leading to diverted and cancelled flights and widespread health impacts. In the last week, the air quality index crossed into ‘hazardous levels’ in locations across Sumatra and Kalimantan.”
At hazardous levels of air quality, the authors said, the entire population was likely to be adversely affected, and this was considered an emergency condition. “Thousands of people have been reported leaving Pekanbaru in Riau province to escape record air pollution levels.”
There have been fires in national parks and other protected areas, the GFW authors point out. “Widespread fires occurred in Tesso Nilo National Park during July and August, and are now smoldering in Tanjung Puting National Park and several other protected areas. These parks are globally significant for their biological diversity, and provide some of the last remaining habitats for species such as orangutans, Sumatran elephants, and clouded leopards.”
Minnemeyer, Samadhi, and Sizer added: “Government officials, companies who source commodities from Indonesia or are responsible for managing the land, community leaders, research organisations and international donors should redouble efforts to work together to prioritise solutions, follow through on implementation, and monitor their progress carefully. If not, the fires and their devastating impacts – such as choking air pollution, lost habitat, and a repetitive blame game – will continue year after year.”
The Singapore-based ASEAN Specialised Meteorological Centre (ASMC) recorded a total of 474 hot spots and 26 hot spots in several areas of Kalimantan and Sumatra respectively on Monday. Based on satellite images picked up by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the ASMC also identified three hot spots in Malaysia, including one in Sabah.
According to Indonesia’s National Disaster Management Agency, there were 1,143 hot spots in Sumatra on September 14, and 266 in Kalimantan.
The Malaysian state of Sarawak on Borneo has been particularly hard hit by the current wave of pollution. The meteorology department has been carrying out cloud-seeding operations to alleviate the situation.
The haze has disrupted air traffic in Kuching, where the API reached an unhealthy level of 133 yesterday.
The haze has decreased in peninsular Malaysia, but both Samarahan and Sri Aman in Sarawak recorded unhealthy levels of 128 and 122 respectively yesterday.
The environmental news website Mongabay reported last week on the deaths of three children, which their relatives believe are linked to the current wave of pollution.
An elementary school student in Riau died of respiratory failure the previous week and two other children, aged 15 and two, passed away in Jambi, where fires were also blazing, Mongabay reported. 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 reported 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 reported.
“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.”
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 Siti Nurbaya Bakar as saying that local authorities in Riau had been instructed to open health posts.
Using crowdsourcing to identify culprits
In an article posted on Monday, and entitled “Leveraging the power of the crowd to identify illegal land and forest fires in Indonesia”, Susan Minnemeyer writes about a new campaign involving the GFW platform and the Tomnod project, which is run by the satellite company DigitalGlobe and uses crowdsourcing to identify objects and places in satellite images.
The aim is to involve the public worldwide in helping to investigate who is responsible for the forest fires.
Digital Globe has covered massive land areas and captured images that could be used as evidence in enforcement actions by police, Minnemeyer writes.
“Tomnod staff say that just the current images (only a small fraction of what will be posted over the coming week) would take a single person up to 10 weeks to analyze. People everywhere can search the latest satellite imagery and ‘tag’ every fire and visible burn scar. This will allow law enforcement officials to prioritize reviewing these tagged images, and more quickly identify and respond to illegal forest clearing.”
Minnemeyer says Indonesian police have charged 127 individuals and 10 corporations with violations associated with the fires, and officials in Singapore are investigating violations of the haze Act to hold companies accountable for blazes that cause high levels of pollution within Singapore.
“The campaign to identify land fires in Indonesia is yet another way of disseminating the message that illegal activity will no longer be tolerated. Our vision is that in future years, smoke, haze, and the ill health that they bring will no longer be an annual occurrence in Indonesia,” Minnemeyer wrote.
To get involved in the GFW/Tomnod, project, you can visit the Tomnod website and choose the “Indonesia: Illegal Burning” campaign. In the introductory text, there are examples of how to search for fires and burn scars.
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: A fire in Kalimantan, Indonesia. Photo by Rini Sulaiman/Norwegian Embassy for the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).