Figure 1 June 29th, 2012 numerous illegally lit fires continue
to rage in Sumatra Tripa peat swamp forests near Aceh
Sumatra open fires
Though open burning is illegal in Indonesia, fire is widely used by plantation managers and farmers to clear land for new plantings. Fires often spread into adjacent forests and peat lands, where they can burn uncontrolled until rains arrive. Although typically too wet to combust, carbon-rich peat land forests acquire enhanced deforestation and degradation susceptibility to human ignited fire during droughts.
In the case of the open fires in the Sumatra Tripa peat swamp forests near Aceh (see figure 1) environmental groups have warned that the local endangered Orangutans were”doomed” unless the fires was stopped. They say the fires were lit by palm oil companies and threaten about 200 orangutans in the area – one of the densest populations in the world.
Indonesian President Yudhoyono has won global plaudits for saying ”deforestation is a thing of the past” and that ”losing our tropical rainforests would constitute the ultimate national, global and planetary disaster”.
But that has not stopped the annual ”burning season” of forests in Borneo and Sumatra as companies take advantage of dry weather to prepare the ground for new plantations.
Indonesia’s government has outlawed land-clearing by fire but weak law enforcement means the ban is largely ignored.
The ASEAN Specialized Meteorological Centre (ASMC) was established in January 1993 as a regional collaboration program among the National Meteorological Services of ASEAN member countries.
The Centre is hosted by the Meteorological Service Singapore, National Environment Agency of Singapore using satellite pictures to monitor hot spot count for Sumatra, Borneo and others ASEAN member fire prone areas since 2006 (see figure 4).
Figure 3 : This figure from ASMC shows high level 300-700 June-July 2012 hot spot counts over Sumatra
This open burning phenomenon is not located only in Indonesian Sumatra. Open burning of agricultural lands and forests in Indonesian Kalimantan southern Borneo are creating thick smoke that reach northward Malaysian Sarawak and Sabah. Myanmar also a huge Hot Spot Count this year during Feb-May dry season. All ASEAN countries are concerned as shown in the table below.
Table 1: Asean Hot Spot count monthly
Haze in West Malaysia and Singapore
The haze season usually occurs each year from June to September, which is the dry season in West Indonesia and Malaysia and also a time when farmers prepare their land using the slash-and-burn method.
Figure 4 : Singapore 11 Sep 2012
Since 2009 the air quality status is being monitored by the Malaysian DOE (see http://www.doe.gov.my/apims/) using a network of around fifty Air Pollutant Index (API) metering sites covering all Malaysia. .
In 2012 the Malaysian haze situation during the dry season had heavily worsened especially in areas such as Kuala-Lumpur, Selangor Klang Valley, Pulau and Pulau Penang .
Figure 5 : 2012 cumulated API status in Selangor
During June to Sept 2012, visibility has been poor, the sky gloomy and blanketed by fumes during long period: in the Klang Valley it is more than 60% of time or 5 months this year. Haze builds up during the dry season, has been affecting tourism, preventing outdoor activities and contributing to health problems across the region.
The API reached 127 in Kuala Lumpur, 144 in Port Klang and 129 in the township of Shah Alam. Readings considered unhealthy (API index >100) has been observed during 2-6 days depending of sites. Most health issues are respiratory problems including asthma in relation with high concentration of very small particle (<2.5µm or PM2.5) entering the lungs. These particle are small enough for them to force their way into the very part of the lungs where oxygen is absorbed.
On Penang island a person in my family had a health problem during this period. Our doctor told us that there were many people affected by respiratory diseases and even if the API could be considerated as moderate there was a cumulative effect of very small ash particles on lungs after long period of haze inhalation.
On 7 Sept Singapore saw its worst air pollution reading of the year as the island was shrouded in haze from Indonesian forest fires. Air pollution from Indonesian forest fires has become a recurring problem in the region, especially during this time of year. Singapore expressed concern that haze could affect the Formula 1 Grand Prix scheduled on 21-23 Sept 2012.
Global warming in Southeast Asia- El Niño/La Niña-Southern Oscillation (ENSO)
Southeast Asia region shows large inter annual variability in fire activity owing to coupling between El Niño induced droughts and anthropogenic land-use change. During the warm phase of ENSO Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean Dipole, cool sea surface temperature anomalies near Indonesia decrease regional rainfall. These events occur across the tropical Pacific Ocean roughly every five years and have shown during the last decades an increase of El Niño (warm current) and a decreased of La Niña (cool current).
Historical data studies show that the recent El Niño strengthening is most likely linked to global warming. Even after subtracting the positive influence of decadal variation present in the ENSO trend, the amplitude of the ENSO variability in the observed data still increases, by as much as 60% in the last 50 years.
There is a potential for the number of fire spots to rise and haze conditions to worsen if there is no rain. In dry years, like those of the 1982-83 and 1997-1998 El Niño events, land burning can last for months, releasing vast stores of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Emissions from fires in those years amounted to more than 10 percent of global pollution.
In the Global Fire Emissions Database version 3 (GFED3), regional fire emissions were as high as 1,069 Tg C during the 1997 El Niño but only 21 Tg C during the 2000 La Niña, illustrating the sensitiveness to Global Warning.
Recent finding on haze health hazard from land fire emission in Southeast Asia
Globally, most fires occur in Africa and South America, but recent studies have highlighted the importance of Southeast Asia because of high population densities near high fire activity.
According to a new study in Nature Climate Change, clearing forests and other vegetation with fire in SE Asia increases region population mortality. The research found that fire-induced air pollution, including fine particulates and a rise in ozone, could be linked to thousands of deaths during El Nino years when dry conditions worsen human-set fires. The pollution was found to be worst over Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia where the vast majority of the fires are set.
This study published in Nature Climate Change on 12 August 2012 shows that during strong El Niño years land fires contribute up to 200 μg/m3 in annual average fine particulate index (PM2.5) and up to 50 ppb in ozone surface concentrations near fire sources. This corresponds to a fire contribution of 200 additional days per year that exceed the World Health Organization 50 μg/m3 /24-hr (PM2.5) interim target and an estimated 10,800 person annual increase in regional adult cardiovascular mortality.
These findings indicate that reducing regional deforestation and degradation fires would improve public health along with widely established benefits from reducing carbon emissions, preserving biodiversity and maintaining ecosystem quality.
Haze periodic problem highlights a weak ASEAN cooperation
ASEAN's efforts to tackle the periodic land fires and haze problem in the region saw nine of its ten members sign the “2002 Asean Treaty on Transboundary Haze Pollution”. But only Indonesia who is the principal culprit has yet to ratify this accord. Moreover, the bloc has yet to draw up an implementing mechanism for the treaty.
Some results have been attained as described above on the monitoring of hot spot and haze pollution metering. But stronger collective action is necessary in Sumatra at ground level to prevent forest fires, combat them collectively and increase law enforcement actions. These land fires are caused deliberately or by negligence. Moreover there are special circumstances that need to be specifically tackled with such as peat land management or biodiversity protection.
Environmentalists say “ASEAN has been talking for more than 10 years on how to combat forest fires and haze, but more concrete action needs to be done.”
ASEAN has been boasting a Regional Haze Action Plan and a Panel Experts on Fire and Haze Assessment and Coordination. Yet the fires recur every year stronger and the haze continues to afflict Indonesia’s neighbors with varying degrees of seriousness.