After just three years of respite, transboundary air pollution from out of control fires returned with a vengeance in recent weeks. The smog engulfed vast territories of Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and Southern Thailand, wreaking havoc on the lives of ordinary citizens. The acrid smoke has cleared for now, but we should not lose sight of the underlying issues.
This decades-long deadly cycle of air pollution caused by fires largely on peatlands, and mostly relating to agricultural land conversion, caught global attention in 1997 and 1998. Then, some eight million hectares of forest were razed by slash-and-burn land clearing, presumably for oil palm and other cash crops.
The 1997/98 episode led Asean to sign the 2002 Transboundary Haze Pollution Agreement, which Indonesia ratified only in 2014.
The second major spike of the haze came in the months of September to November 2015, which saw the longest peat-driven, haze-smog pollution when some 43 million Indonesians were exposed continuously to toxic smog in Kalimantan and Sumatra, while Singapore and Malaysia suffered unhealthy to hazardous levels of haze-smog.
A number of Singaporean supermarkets stopped the sale of some products of alleged haze-causing companies. Key Indonesian suppliers greenlighted by the Singapore Environment Council’s platform were recently reported to have achieved the tough task of having no fires.
In the recent episode, the third week of September this year witnessed smog covering western and central regions of Indonesia and most of Malaysia and Singapore. Even reaching parts of Southern Thailand, the haze-smog affected the tourist island of Phuket.
The Air Pollution Index in Palangkaraya, the capital of the Central Kalimantan province on Borneo island, exceeded the 500 “dangerous” level. Acute respiratory infections affected 11,758 people in Palangkaraya, 15,346 in Riau and 15,047 in Jambi, according to data given by Indonesia’s health ministry. The Riau capital of Pekanbaru reported its highest reading of 700 at 10pm on Sept 22, surpassing levels of 2015.
According to the Academy of Sciences, the haze potentially costs Malaysia RM1.3 billion annually. Will the consequences of the 2019 haze exceed that of the 2015 episode when a total of 2.6 million hectares of land was affected, costing Indonesia IDR221 trillion (RM65.5 billion) in economic losses? This remains to be seen. Hot spot counts on the Global Forest Watch (GFW) platform tracked lower than 2015, but air pollution seemed elevated.
At the peak of the episode, Indonesia deployed more than 29,000 military, police and disaster agency personnel to douse the fires, having declared an emergency in six provinces in Sumatra and Kalimantan. Haze conditions badly affected Malaysia and Singapore, with unhealthy levels registered in both countries until Sept 23 when the winds turned.
Chart reports by the Asean Specialised Meteorological Centre (ASMC) pointed to a prevailing wind shift from a monsoon arrival. This brought huge relief to Malaysians and Singaporeans as the smog plumes blew away, but the people of Sumatra and Kalimantan who are closer to the fires may need more.
Why has the haze recurred this year despite efforts by both big plantation companies and the Indonesian government? This haze-smog spike occurred despite the management of peatland development and the restoration of some 679,000ha of peatland through the Badan Restorasi Gambut (BRG) or Peat Restoration Agency.
Since the 2015 haze crisis, the May 2015 Haze Outlook Report of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA) notes that over 100 academic studies have been conducted on fires and haze in the region as well as related issues such as peatland management.
Three main factors — weather, peat and people — explain the current crisis. Beyond the blame game, what are the solutions to this infernal problem? We argue that the Southeast Asian transboundary haze not only hurts the region but is also intimately linked to global climate change, which threatens mankind’s current way of life on this planet.
The severe fires and haze in 1997/98 and 2015 were exacerbated by an intense El Niño event that brought prolonged dry conditions. The spike in 2015 saw over 100,000 fires burning some two million hectares of land (SIIA 2015).
El Niño and rainfall conditions this year are considered to be relatively mild. Plantation experts say the Indian Ocean Dipole’s drying effect was perhaps overlooked by many this year. This has caused a two to three-month dry spell, priming the dried out peatlands and degraded forests for fire risk.
However, some scientists no longer consider climate to be a controlling factor for the fires and haze-smog. The regularity of the conflagration problem points to human factors.
First, let’s note that degraded peatland poses fire risk due to the loss of wet conditions (peat is usually resistant to fires) and peat that has been burned will usually burn even more the next time. How much peat has been restored, and how effective have been the restoration efforts? Answering this requires examining how and when fire hot spots occur:
• When the watery protection of peat is lost, carbon-rich peatlands are highly combustible and difficult to extinguish.
• Peatland fires can spread and burn underground for months, and require huge amounts of water to get at the below-ground blazes.
• Due to the high content of aerosols, peat fires produce haze and significantly contribute to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
• According to GFW, Indonesia had 43% of hot spot alerts on peat this year, 40% in 2015 and, in Sumatra, 75% in 2013.
Degraded peatlands were primary fire locations in 1997 as well as in 2015 and 2019, as shown in the map. BRG reported that 679,000ha of peatlands have been restored in priority areas. Companies have also launched forest conservation and peat restoration programmes, and stepped up fire protection and firefighting resources.
While BRG data for 2016, 2017 and 2018 shows peatland restoration is effective in countering the occurrence of fires, it is still possible for rewetted areas to dry out if there is a prolonged period of low rainfall of four weeks.
Why did the haze-smog seem so bad this year? Those perusing the satellite data of September 2019 and September 2015 have seen more widespread muck in the atmosphere. In 2015, smaller intense pockets of aerosols appeared to be present in the air.
Dr Liew, who looks at fire regimes at the National University of Singapore’s remote sensing centre, points out the following: “The spread of the haze is very much dependent on the source location and the wind direction. I noticed that hot spots appeared in Riau and northern Sumatra. Usually they occur mainly in southern Sumatra at this time of the year. From satellite images, the burned areas seem to be confined, unlike in 2015 or 2006.” This point is confirmed by Khor Reports’ mapping of the hot spots in 2019.
Fire prevention and management initiatives are crucial, though they must be adapted to local contexts. What is being done to engage with businesses and communities, to reduce their use of, and response to fires?
• GFW reports on Indonesia show that 12% of fires occurred on pulp concessions and 10% on oil palm concessions, and 85% on non-concession areas, between June 1 and Sept 21 this year.
• Over time, corporate no-burn policies and government efforts have diminished fires in concessions but slash-and-burn practices are still prevalent for small farmers and used to prepare and gain access to new land.
Key segments of the palm oil industry strenuously deny culpability. Ministers and agencies are annoyed by “fake news” slurs in top international media, and snap at each other across borders too. The naming of four Malaysian-owned and several other plantations, under investigation by the Indonesian authorities, point to uncertainty and remaining fire-protection problems.
Since then, name lists have appeared on the popular GFW platform (largely about oil palm plantation groups but not covering the pulp players) and a list from Greenpeace has featured big palm oil and pulp companies in Indonesia. NGO-linked concessions (to look after the forest) have also been called out for dereliction of their duty.
Hot spot attribution to Indonesian business concessions ranges from 10% to 15%, according to GFW data for June 1 to Sept 21 this year. As at Sept 10, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (representing about 20% of global palm oil supply area) said it detected 244 hot spots within its members’ concessions compared with a count of 48,422 across Malaysia and Indonesia. Industry executives point to small farmers (especially of cash crops in this burn season, as palm oil prices have been disappointing) as the main culprit both within and outside concessions. Yet again.
But questions about how the industry benefits from the widespread development of fragile peatlands and small farmer activity thereon (namely processing and marketing their produce, especially pulp and palm oil) drive investigations and NGO concerns. Heavy capital expenditure in infrastructure, mills and logistics associates fire-using farmers with billions in sales from Sumatra and Kalimantan.
Indeed, in the wake of a nascent awareness of fires across the globe in August, campaigners Friends of the Earth, Amazon Watch and Profundo recently asked about the role of financial groups in funding “forest-risk” companies.
The solutions to addressing and eventually eliminating Southeast Asia’s haze-smog have to be predicated on the triple factors of weather watching, mitigation measures — including peatland management — and engaging people to respond to the problem, notably to eschew the use of fires in these tinder-box landscapes.
President Joko Widodo has expressed regret and even points to negligence. The Malaysian government has vowed to put in a transboundary haze act to sanction errant companies. The green labelling by Singapore raises the bar as well for credible measures to control the haze-smog. Social awareness of the deleterious consequences of the haze is also an important part of a solution to eliminate the haze.
On the industry side, July 2015 marked the launch of APRIL Group’s Fire Free Village Program as a fire prevention project to educate and raise awareness of the negative impacts of land burning among local communities in Riau, Indonesia. In March 2016, the Fire Free Alliance (FFA) was formed by companies and NGOs, bringing together APRIL, Asian Agri, Musim Mas and Wilmar, with IDH Indonesia, People’s Movement to Stop Haze (PMHaze) and Rumah Pohon as NGOs, and with Sime Darby and IOI Group joining in March 2017.
PMHaze in Singapore has various programmes to keep consumers abreast of the companies that are culpable in causing fires and what palm oil products are considered to not have passed sustainability standards using RSPO criteria.
But talking to those on the ground (we spoke to a dozen sources based in Riau and Jakarta, and with business in Kalimantan), there is a keen sense that small farmers in haze-burn areas need better incomes and alternatives to slash-and-burn, a method that is still legal. Plantation executives also tell of farmers warning each other off for setting fires, indicating better awareness. At the same time, we need to know more about how well water levels (to keep peat suitably wet) have been managed by agencies and corporations that dominate the landscapes.
It is timely that fire hot spots in Indonesia and, indeed, across the world, become a focus and are not forgotten as those away from the fires breathe easier again. It seems appropriate to address it at a local political level too. For Indonesia, the key provinces are listed (left), and they may need added assistance to tackle the problem.
A political solution is especially important where fires occur on peatlands (see map on Page 64) for its devastating acrid smog impact on local people. This also releases stored carbon, including from peat in the Americas and in the far north, including Siberia. GHG emissions and climate change will come to affect poor people disproportionately.
Implications for climate change
The Southeast Asian haze crisis has set a few new scary records. Given the massive human and environmental costs, it will go down in history as one of the worst environmental disasters in the region. The Indonesian Agency for Meteorological, Climatological and Geophysics (BMKG) has labelled it “a crime against humanity”.
While there is rising pressure for penalties on negligence and errant companies, we should not forget about the need for a wider and inclusive political solution to a problem that has gone on for too long.
Data compiled by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) shows that the five-year period from 2014 to 2019 was the warmest on record. The rise in the sea level has accelerated significantly over the same period, as CO emissions have hit new highs.
WMO notes that global temperatures have risen by 1.1°C since 1850 but went up alarmingly by 0.2°C between 2011 and 2015. Perhaps most worrying of all is the data on sea-level rise. The average rate of rise from 1993 until now is 3.2mm per year. However, from May 2014 to 2019, the rise has increased to 5mm per year. The 10-year period from 2007 to 2016 saw an average increase of about 4mm per year.
The Southeast Asian haze is the outcome of man’s actions in altering natural conditions and not managing the consequences. The solutions to this problem, as we have pointed out, are well within our grasp but only if we have the political will to implement them.
Khor Yu Leng is an independent economist at Khor Reports — Segi Enam Advisors and a specialist on sustainability. Johan Saravanamuttu is professor emeritus of Universiti Sains Malaysia and adjunct senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. Maps and data sets were assisted by Nadirah Sharif and Loh Rachel of Khor Reports.