Climate

The Fires In Indonesia Are A Health And Climate Nightmare

CREDIT: AP Photo/Tatan Syuflana

Military personnel watch a helicopter drop water to extinguish forest fire in Ogan Ilir, South Sumatra, Indonesia, Thursday, Sept. 17, 2015. Indonesia intensifies efforts to extinguish the forest fires that cause the haze, which blanketed parts of the archipelago and neighboring countries.

Indonesia is in the midst of the worst spate of forest fires in nearly two decades, sending choking smoke across Southeast Asia, releasing tons of carbon, and destroying thousands of acres of peat forest, one of the world’s most effective carbon sinks. The president of the island nation called for assistance this week from Singapore, Malaysia, Japan, and Russia to help fight the fires, which have been smoldering for months now.

“We have asked for help and we have received help from Singapore,” President Widodo said in a statement reported by Reuters. “We hope this will speed up the process because fires on peat land is different from regular forest fires.”

Indonesia had previously rejected an offer of help from neighboring Singapore, which has been suffering weeks of crippling pollution carried on trade winds. Malaysia, too, has been hit with the smoke from fires that were likely started by palm oil and wood pulp producers, who use slash and burn techniques to clear land on Sumatra and Borneo.

Singapore closed schools recently due to the smoke and has a standing alert on its environmental agency page. Exposure to smoke is associated with short- and long-term health impacts, including higher rates of asthma and asthma attacks and declines in cardiovascular health.

“Thousands of people in Sumatra and Kalimantan are sick. Little babies are dying because of the haze,” said Bustar Maitar, global head of Greenpeace’s Indonesia forests campaign.

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A heat map shows where fires are burning and the wind patterns carrying smoke up through Southeast Asia.

CREDIT: Global Forest Fires Watch/Dylan Petrohilos

Moreover, the fires burning in Indonesia are a climatologist’s nightmare — a perfect confluence of everything we should not be doing. Not only do forest fires release carbon and other greenhouse gases, they also reduce the amount of carbon absorbed by the environment. A recent study from the University of California, Berkeley found that carbon emissions from fires in that state had been drastically underestimated. Greenpeace estimates that the Indonesia fires will emit more carbon this year than the entire United Kingdom.

Land use, including peat and forest fires, accounts for 63 percent of Indonesia’s emissions. Indonesia is the sixth-largest emitter in the world, due almost entirely to land use. Indonesia has a moratorium in place on clearing “primary forests” (forests that have never been cleared or disrupted) and on converting peat bogs, an unusually effective type of carbon sink, which can release huge amounts of carbon when burned. Under its recently submitted emissions pledge to the United Nations, Indonesia said it will continue to reduce deforestation.

But that goal might be difficult to achieve. Indonesia has a long history of slash-and-burn agriculture. While technically illegal, the practice continues in the largely rural island nation, and experts have called for international intervention.

“You need to understand that the root cause of the fire is attributed largely on the social-economic issues,” Nirarta Samadhi, country director for the World Resources Institute, told Climate Home.

For a visual tour of the crisis, check out this drone footage from Greenpeace, showing tendrils of smoke rising ineluctably from acres upon acres of dense forest.