Yesterday, I woke up and stepped out of my 19th-floor apartment, on the way to church. Passing the light well, its orientation one that scoops in sea breezes, the first thing I smelled was that familiar odour of distant fires. I realise now that it was probably blowing in from Sumatra’s Jambi Province, Desa Rimau Baku Tuo, Kecamatan Sadu, Kabupaten Tanjung Jabung Timur, to be precise. Checking the wind direction this seemed most likely.
Desa Rimau Baku Tuo. This area borders the Berbak National Park. Haphazard, clearing and the use of fire endanger national park forest margins.
Why burning now
It’s the dry season in Jambi so it’s the ideal time to burn off areas of peatland forest. Fire is used to clear land in preparation for development of palm oil or wood pulp plantations. Many corporations in the palm oil and wood pulp industries regard the forest land as unproductive and ripe for ‘development’.
Peatland clearing moratorium
In December 2016, Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo introduced a blanket ban prohibiting the draining and clearing peatland. The ban also applied to concessions already licensed to plantation companies.
The initiative was widely hailed as a step forward and a practical strategy for dealing with the disastrous fires plaguing Jambi and neighbouring provinces and the massive forest loss.
The fallacy of development
This so-called development imposes high costs. Present practices lead to:
destruction of forest ecosystems;
deaths of endangered animals;
dispossession of Indigenous peoples like the Orang Rimba;
the release vast amounts of carbon from carbon-rich peatland soils;
pollution of drainage systems with pesticides; and,
peatland shrinkage on cleared land facilitating potential ingress of seawater in coastal and estuarine settings.
In 2015 such was the scale of the problem that the fires caused massive air pollution, transboundary smoke haze, disruptions to air traffic, numerous respiratory and pulmonary health issues and made a major contribution to global warming.
Any attempt to calculate the externalities involved with this so-called development is difficult, but the scale of the ecological, human and planetary costs is significant.
While a country like Indonesia benefits from the export of palm oil, voices within are also expressing concern about the way the externalities might be approached.
There is a surprising lack of freely available research findings on the questions of externalities in the palm oil industry. ‘Palm oil the hidden costs‘ by Rachel Goehring University of Nebraska – Lincoln, (firstname.lastname@example.org) makes an effort to explore some of the externalities. Clearly, more work is required.
Tragically, around 90% of the fires in Jambi are still deliberately lite and the burning of forest land is often done at night to avoid surveillance. Once started they spread quickly.
A footnote from Prayoto Tonoto
The function of peat land as the global climate regulator has been threatened by human activities through deforestation and plantation, including the peatlands in Jambi. Berbak National Park is covered by 110,000 hectares of peatlands. Most of the land changes is detected in August-October represent the temporal complexity affected by fires. Under the regulation, the farmer is allowed to use fire for land preparation under 2 hectares. However, fire utilization is prohibited for land preparation in concessionaries. The Result showed fire tend to occur in peatland every year. Land covers before fire occurrence mostly were bush and disturbed secondary forest. On average, 21% was converted into forest plantation and 27% was converted into palm oil plantation, the rest areas were community land.
As I approach my 70th birthday I find a need to consolidate my energy and spend time on those matters that present as the more serious and immediate. One of these matters is the health of our atmosphere and the allied issues of climate change and global warming caused by humanity’s over dependence on fossil fuels as sources of energy.
Many industrial societies have been lazy, content to ignore the serious legacy of external costs, seeking quick profits through a dependency on apparently cheap fossil fuels like coal and oil. Neoliberal economics, with its magical trust in the market as the ultimate determinant of rationality and balance in the world, has gravely worsened matters.
Life in Singapore
Several years ago when I came to live in Singapore it was with some uncertainty. This busy entrepôt with global connections seemed like a model of the market driven approach but this proved to be untrue. Governance takes an appropriate role and although this small island is by no means perfect, there is great concern for the environmental impact of change and development.
Singapore has no extensive natural resources but it has a well-connected society made easier by excellent public transport and communications. With an average population density of 8500 people per sq. kilometre this is a much cheaper goal to achieve than in my own less densely settled city of Sydney with around 400 people per sq. kilometre.
Singapore also has a locational advantage at a pivotal point between the Pacific and Indian Oceans, at the head of the Malacca Straits. Alongside this is its highly educated population.
Haze and the El Niño year of 2015
Life in Singapore proved very comfortable, until 2015. That year, an El Niño year, the city was enveloped in smoke haze.
Not long after this a colleague from the ANZA Writers group that I convene mentioned a group called the ‘Mother Earth Toast Masters Club”. I went along to a meeting and it was there I met Tan Yi Han of the Peoples’ Movement to Stop Haze.
Since then I’ve become involved with the group. I’m probably the oldest member the group has ever had, but I find nothing but acceptance and a willingness to use what little life experience that I’ve accumulated over the past 70 years.
This month they featured my picture of me and ran a short interview with me under the banner Volunteer Spotlight: Russell. I hope you enjoy the read.
In 2015 I was forced to leave Singapore when the smoke haze, mainly from fires burning on Sumatran peatlands, became so heavy it was unhealthy for me to remain. My exit was easy but the people in Sumatra and Kalimantan, particularly Central Kalimantan, were not so fortunate. All of those in affected areas were living in far higher levels of smoke, without my means to escape.
Understanding the gravity of the problem I began blogging about it. Shortly after this I met Tan Yi Han Co-Founder at People’s Movement to Stop Haze (PM.Haze). Yi Han’s clarity, patience and commitment to educate people about this problem was inspiring.
Founded, in 2014, by a group of Singaporeans who believe that everyone can play a part in bringing an end to trans-boundary haze in Southeast Asia, PM.Haze aims to empower people with the knowledge, values and skills needed to build a broad social movement to stop the haze and ensure clean air for present and future generations.
Should El Nino take off in 2017 further smoke haze can be expected, despite the moratorium on further peatland plantation development. The Australian Bureau of Meteorology on 23 May, 2017, reported that,”The El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) remains neutral. With the tropical Pacific Ocean warmer than average, and around half the international climate models reaching El Niño levels later in the year, development of El Niño in 2017 cannot be ruled out. The Bureau’s ENSO Outlook remains at El Niño WATCH, meaning there is around a 50% chance—double the normal likelihood—of El Niño developing in 2017.”
Peoples’ Expedition to Experience Peat (PEEP)
It was with great interest that I joined members PM.Haze on the Peoples’ Expedition to Experience Peat (PEEP) 0n Thursday 18 May. Until this point most of what I knew about peat was theoretical. I had played on the margins of a small peatland swamp as a child, walked through a peatland forest in East Kalimantan back in 1988 and recently took a helicopter flight over peatlands in Riau Province with a PM.Haze. This was my first opportunity to have a close-up view.
Our journey took us to the Sungai Tohor area on Tebing Tinggi island, Riau Province.
Tebing Tinggi is a peat island formed by slow accumulation over the past 8000 years, since the end of the Pleistocene Ice Age. This process has been part of the coastal stabilisation of Riau province.
Beginning in 2007 two companies began cutting canals through the island and draining the peatland for plantations of sago palm and pulpwood for paper production.
This resulted in land, comprising the concessions issued to the companies, being taken from the local community. Now as the peatland dried out, there was not only subsidence of the land but it also became more vulnerable to fire. In 2014, fires burned across the island.
After the fires the community invited Indonesian president Joko Widodo (Jokowi) to visit the island. Villagers presented him with an alternative peat management plan leading to the revocation of one company’s license. The land was returned to the community for sustainable management. We visited this land which is now being rehydrated through the building of canal blocks. PM.Haze members and those joining PEEP helped build the latest canal block.
Attempting to develop self-sufficiency based on the cultivation of sago palms is a major objective of the village. At present raw sago starch is sent to Malaysia for further processing. Current plans are to explore ways of value adding, perhaps expanding the existing cottage industry that is already producing sago noodles and sago snacks. The community hopes to increase its income by adding value to sago production.
The challenges confronting the people of Tebing Tinggi can be found throughout the peatland of Indonesia. One area where people have also confronted the problem of peatland drainage and wild fires producing toxic levels of smoke, is in the Pelangkaraya area of Central Kalimantan.
At the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival (UWRF) of 2016 I also met Emmanuela Shinta, a young Dayak leader. She was instrumental in organising young volunteers to help villagers affected by the smoke, bringing medical services, supplies and health education during the 2015 peatland fires. In May 2016, she and others founded the Ranu Welum Foundation which continues grassroots education on the smoke haze problem
With the help of Emmanuela Shinta I plan to write more on this in the future.
Travelling through East Kalimantan in 1987 the extent of forest clearance was immediately apparent. On the road from Balikpapan to Tenggarong most of the clear-felled areas I passed were tantamount to a tinderbox waiting for a firestorm.
Fire in logged areas was a regular occurrence in East Kalimantan and ten years after this visit, the inevitable happened. The El Nino of 1997-98 exacerbated yet another outbreak that went on to burn 25% of the province.
The El Nino of 2015-16
In June the Straits Times reported that peatland fires in Kalimantan and Sumatra that blanketed South-east Asia in thick haze last year released the greatest amount of climate-changing carbon since record blazes in 1997, producing emissions higher than in the whole of the European Union.
The Nature Climate Change 4 notes that El Niño events are a prominent feature of climate variability with global climatic impacts. The 1997/98 episode, often referred to as ‘the climate event of the twentieth century’1, 2, and the 1982/83 extreme El Niño3, featured a pronounced eastward extension of the west Pacific warm pool and development of atmospheric convection, and hence a huge rainfall increase, in the usually cold and dry equatorial eastern Pacific. Such a massive reorganization of atmospheric convection, which we define as an extreme El Niño, severely disrupted global weather patterns, affecting ecosystems4, 5, agriculture6, tropical cyclones, drought, bushfires, floods and other extreme weather events worldwide3, 7, 8, 9
Recent research on the 2015 fires reported in the Straits Times concluded that 884 million tonnes of carbon dioxide was emitted in the region last year, with 97 per cent originating from forest fires in Indonesia.
The results showed that regional carbon dioxide emissions from the fires were 11.3 million tonnes per day in September and October 2015, more than the 28-nation EU’s daily emissions of 8.9 million tonnes during the same period.
The researchers also said the emissions were worse than during the 1997 fires, considered the worst on record.
At that time, there was an even longer drought and widespread burning due to a stronger El Nino.
Research suggests 100,000 premature deaths
Harvard and Columbia University researchers have used air pollution readings to calculate exposure to the toxic smoke haze that drifted across Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia, last year. Their research suggests 100,000 premature deaths in Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia, arising from this event.
The Sydney Morning Herald’s Indonesia correspondent Jewel Topsfield quotes the report from the Environmental Research Letters journal on September 19 as estimating “. . . that haze in 2015 resulted in 100,300 excess deaths across Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore,” says the report, which was published in. This was largely the result of exposure the dangerous particulate matter of 2.5 microns or smaller (PM2.5). The report states:
A combination of El Niño and pIOD conditions in July–October 2015 led to dry conditions that exacerbated agricultural and land clearing fires in southern Sumatra and Kalimantan. The resulting dense haze persisted across much of Equatorial Asia for weeks, imposing adverse public health impacts on populations in Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia. Using the adjoint of the GEOS-Chem global chemistry model together with health response functions, we estimate ~60 μg m−3 of population-weighted smoke PM2.5 exposure and 100 300 premature deaths across Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore due to extreme haze in 2015. These values are more than double the 25 μg m−3 of smoke PM2.5 and 37 600 premature deaths that we estimate for a similar haze event in the region in 2006. The approximate doubling of regional smoke exposure in 2015 compared to 2006 is consistent with observations of haze from both OMI AI and MODIS AOD during the two events.
Conditions are becoming worse with the El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle and Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) potentiating factors.
The report notes that, “Exposure to air pollution increases the risk of death from a number of ailments including stroke and respiratory illnesses,” one of the researchers from Harvard University, Dr Shannon Koplitz, told Fairfax Media.
Indonesians were the worst affected with an estimated 91,600 excess deaths.
Last year Indonesia’s National Disaster management Agency (BNPB) acknowledged the severity of the situation reporting that hat 43 million Indonesians were affected by the smog in Sumatra and Kalimantan alone with 503,874 reported Acute Respiratory Infections (ARI).
Topsfield reports Sutopo Purwo Nugroho from BNPB as claiming “There is nothing like that (91,000 premature deaths),” and going on to say, “It is not true. The data is not valid. If there were high numbers of people dead we would have stated it in our almost daily forest fire press releases last year.”
It seems Sutopo Purwo Nugroho has misunderstood the data which pointed to premature deaths, rather than deaths in the present period.
Greenhouse gas emissions from peat fires in Borneo and Sumatra are currently exceeding emissions from the entire U.S. economy, putting Indonesia on track to be one of the world’s largest carbon polluters this year.
According to the Global Fire Emissions Database (GFED) carbon emissions from Indonesia’s fires have just topped the CO2 equivalent of a billion tons.
The findings bring into sharp focus the importance of ending business-as-usual approaches to land management in Indonesia if the world hopes to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
While the health impacts are an obvious and continuing legacy of the rapacious forest burning there are other grave consequences.
Non-health consequence of forest clearing and burning
The impacts on endangered ecosystems and endangered animals, in particular, are well documented. Tragic as this is, particularly for animals such as the Sumatran Tiger and the Orang Utan, I’ve concentrated on less well known impacts. The WWF covers the issue of Palm Oil and Biodiversity Loss most thoroughly.
Subsidence of peatlands and their increasing vulnerability to sea level rise and flooding
Flooding in deltas and riparian lowlands is accelerated by the subsidence of peatlands. Subsidence commonly occurs when channels are cut through peat lands as part of the clearing process. Peat dries out begins to release sequestered CO2 and shrinks. This is well documented in the Straits Times article which reminds us that unrestrained forest clearance to develop oil palm and pulpwood plantations leads to land subsidence.
The article observes that:
Millions of hectares of Indonesia’s former forest lands are slowly subsiding and could become flooded wastelands unable to grow food or timber-based products in one of the world’s most populous nations. Combined with rising sea levels, the scale of the problem becomes even more stark because much of the east coast of Sumatra is just a few metres above sea level.
It quotes Wetlands International which claims that between 70 per cent and 80 per cent of Sumatra’s peatlands have been drained, largely for agriculture.
Vast stretches of peatlands along Sumatra’s east coast that is mere metres about sea level. Mr Marcel Silvius of Wetlands International tells us:
These peatlands will become unproductive so that, over time, almost the entire east coast of Sumatra will consist of unproductive land that will become frequently flooded, adding that this means the livelihoods of the local communities will be jeopardised, and industrial plantations will not be possible any more.
Remediation is unlikely to be an option so the costs associated with this aspect of the palm oil industry are huge and inter-generational.
Siltation of drainage basins, mangroves and coastal waters
Clearing any land in humid environments increases run off and reduces the percolation of water into soils. Run-off velocity in such situations also increases and without the protective forest layer erosion increases, top soil is lost and carried into water courses, streams and rivers. This in turn reduces the efficiency of channel flow, increasing flooding and also leading to increased siltation of estuaries and coastal waters. Such siltation can disturb coastal mangroves and associated fish breeding areas. River transport, coastal fishing and coastal navigation all suffer.
Muhammad Lukman, in research towards his PhD, has identified elevated levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in riparian and coastal sediments. He suggests that his findings could be evidence of the effects of widespread, long-term and intense agricultural burnings along with the many forest/peat swamp fires that have frequently occurred in the past 20 years or so.
Some estimates of cost can be made in terms of the costs of flood mitigation and control measures, losses arising from flooding of agricultural land and settled areas, and the immediate impacts on navigation and fishing
Forced closure of schools and educational institutions;
Such a cyclical problem will cause significant disruption to educational services and the development of human resources, particularly in Indonesia.
Closure of airports and disruption of airline schedules.
During the burning season 2015 flights were frequently cancelled at Sultan Syarif Kasim II (SSK II) airport Pekanbaru, in Riau province with visibility down to between 300 to 600 metres in the area. Elsewhere Kuching International Airport (KIA) in Sarawak, Malaysia was closed on September 10 with visibility down to some 400 metres. In Indonesia, poor visibility due to smoke disrupted flight schedules at Pinang Kampai Airport, Riau. All of these events have direct measurable impacts.
Losses sustained by the tourism industry and other business sectors
Last year Reuters quoted Irvin Seah, DBS economist in Singapore, who said, In 1997, the level of pollution was not this severe, and noting that the tourism industry’s contribution to the economy was relatively smaller back then.
The Reuters report observes that Tourism makes up 6.4 percent of Malaysia’s economy and about 5 to 6 percent of Singapore’s and quotesan ANZ research report that says, in Singapore, Shopping, restaurants, bars and outdoor entertainment will all suffer during this hazy period.
While losses in tourism and ancillary sectors can be calculated there are increased costs to businesses across the board. Developing and implementing disaster relief plans for employees is one area that is immediately obvious, then there are the issues of work days lost owing to respiratory or cardio pulmonary illnesses, disruptions to supply chains and various other schedules of usual business activity. Finally there is the matter of impacts on ventilation and air conditioning filtration systems particularly in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.
Impact on global warming
This was also broached in the previous post Forest Burning and haze in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. The precise impact of any one burning event is difficult to judge, but the immense quantities of carbon stored in the peatlands of Indonesia is cause for concern. One estimate suggests that Indonesia’s 1997 fires released 810 to 2,670 million tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere, the equivalent of 13 to 40 per cent of the fossil fuels emitted worldwide that year.
I wasn’t expecting things to deteriorate quite as quickly as they have today.
Just in case readers aren’t familiar with this Air Quality Index scale, readings are based on several factors but the figure 248 refers to parts per million of particles 2.5 microns in size. These have a capacity to enter the lungs and remain deep inside.
So, where is all this smoke haze coming from today.
First, here is yesterdays wind map showing hotspots in the ASEAN region. There are two in Sumatra.
Here is a map showing palm oil plantations and peat domes in Sumatra.
Without doing a precise mapping exercise to match the active hotspots with peat domes, it’s still obvious that the most likely source of Singapore’s smoke haze pollution right now is a hot spot west south west of Palembang. At the time of writing Palembang is at AQI 54 but this is a PM 10 reading
This story is from the Jakarta Post. I reproduce it with this brief comment.
I find the reluctance of the Indonesian Foreign Ministry to make meaningful comment about the problem of transboundary haze very puzzling indeed. It leads me to wonder whether there is the will and capacity, at a national level, to tackle this problem.
Jakarta. The Singaporean Foreign Ministry has released a statement denying Indonesia has protested a warrant against the director an Indonesian firm linked to illegal forest fires in last year’s haze.
Arrmanatha Nasir, spokesman for the Indonesian Foreign Ministry, said the government has issued a protest against Singapore’s National Environment Agency (NEA) through the Indonesian embassy in Singapore.
“We urge for Singapore’s regulations to not affect good trade and cooperation ties, especially between our businesses,” Arrmanatha said in a press briefing on Thursday (12/05).
In a response on Friday, Singaporean Foreign Ministry spokesperson said Arrmanatha’s remarks were “puzzling,” and the Singaporean government is yet to receive any representation from the Indonesian Embassy.
Earlier on Wednesday, NEA had obtained a court warrant against the Indonesian director, who failed to heed an interview notice served to him when he was in Singapore.
“The Transboundary Haze Pollution Act [THPA]’s purpose is to prosecute and deter entities that are responsible for transboundary haze pollution in Singapore, whether Singaporean or foreign … We are therefore puzzled as to why Indonesia does not welcome these efforts,” said the statement received by the Jakarta Globe.
Singapore has repeatedly urged the Indonesian government to share information on companies suspected of illegal burning in Indonesia.
Indonesian officials have been informed of at least six companies being served with THPA notices, although no replies have been received.
However, the summoned director and the list of companies have not been disclosed to public.
Haze coming from fires across Sumatra and Kalimantan in Sept. and Oct. last year reached Singapore and Malaysia, causing health issues and inconvenience to all three countries. Several pulp and paper companies are believed to be responsible for starting the fires.
In China the Mekong River is called the Lancang River. For some years I’ve been concerned about dam construction on the upper part of the Mekong that flows through China.
International Rivers advises that Seven megadams have already been built, and over 20 more are under construction or being planned in Yunnan, Tibet and Qinghai. See the Google Map prepared by International Rivers. .
According to International Rivers these existing dams and those under consideration scheme will drastically change the river’s natural flood-drought cycle and block the transport of sediment, affecting ecosystems and the livelihoods of millions living downstream in Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Impacts to water levels and fisheries have already been recorded along the Thai-Lao border.
While my concerns have always been related to the resulting water shortages Rubin, Kondolf and Carling remind us that damming rivers also contains and reduces the transmission of sediments through water catchments. This is important because sediments, deposited along water catchments, particularly in the lower reaches where extensive flood plains develop, bring nutrients and the very substances of alluvial soils. Without flooding and deposition of sediments agriculture must rely more on chemical fertilisers.
Most deposition is likely to occur in the Normal and La Nina phases of the ENSO Cycle but if dams prevent this unless they are constructed to allow the passage of sediments. Even if they are, the retention of water will curb natural flows. So this broadens the picture.
There is sufficient online material for any reader to follow this up, but in the April 30 Jakarta Post I noticed some more telling details under the Heading El Niño dries up Asia as its stormy sister La Nina looms in a feed from Satish Cheney from AFP, Temerloh, Malaysia. Satish observes that “Withering drought and sizzling temperatures from El Nino have caused food and water shortages and ravaged farming across Asia”
The 2015-16 El Niño
The 2015-16 El Nino, has been identified by US meteorologists as the strongest since 1997-98. It has left the Mekong River at its lowest level in decades. Satish reports that this is causing food-related unrest in the Philippines, and smothering vast regions in a months-long heat wave often topping 40 degrees Celsius.
El Niño has already severely affected the health and food security of so many families and communities across the world. I am deeply worried about rising acute malnutrition among children under five and the increase in water- and vector-borne diseases. People urgently need food, nutrition, water, sanitation and hygiene as well as health services, Mr. O’Brien added.
Satish quotes Le Anh Tuan, a professor of climate change at Can Tho University affirming that in the Mekong Delta up to 50% of arable land has been affected by salt-water intrusion that harms crops and can damage farmland. Such events might even become common outside El Niño years if dam construction continues. Associated with this problem more than 500,000 people are short of drinking water, while hotels, schools and hospitals are struggling to maintain clean-water supplies.
Satish goes on to summarise the Asian situation accordingly:
Neighboring Thailand and Cambodia also are suffering, with vast areas short of water and Thai rice output curbed.
In Malaysia, the extreme weather has shrunk reservoirs, dried up agricultural lands, forced water rationing in. some areas, and caused repeated school closures as a health precaution.
In India, about 330 million people are at risk from water shortages and crop damage, the government said recently, and blazing temperatures have been blamed for scores of heatstroke deaths and dead livestock.
Authorities in Palau warned recently the tiny Pacific island nation could completely dry up soon in a “total water outage”.
The OCHA has prepared this interesting infographic on the situation in the Philippines.
Mr. O’Brien emphasises that the World Humanitarian Summit, to be convened by the UN Secretary-General in Istanbul in a month’s time, on 23 and 24 May, provides a critical opportunity for the international community to change the way it manages climatic risks, including future El Niño and La Niña events.