environment, geography, Health, Indonesia

The #smokehaze is likely to remain a problem in the face of an ineffective #Indonesian response

Smoke haze from peat fires in Sumatra, Singapore October 1, 2015.
Smoke haze from peat fires in Sumatra, Singapore October 1, 2015.

Channel News Asia reports Indonesia’s Minister of the Environment and Forestry Siti Nurbaya has been critical of recent comment from Singapore’s Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli who is reported as saying , on 15 April, that “Agro-forestry companies should take full responsibility for fire prevention and mitigation in their concessions.” Speaking at the at at the third Sustainable World Resources dialogue he went on to say, ” There must not be a repeat of last year’s fires, because the prolonged season of dryness allowed fires to burn uncontrollably and in a very widespread way”.

He added, “Companies practising unsustainable production that affect us with haze must know that their actions will not lead to profitability and that they will have to face the consequences sooner or later.”

In this El Nino year the Minister’s comments are timely.  They also and stand as a fair warning that given the lack of enforcement, apparent in the Indonesia’s response to extensive burning of cleared peatlands, smoke haze is most likely to return in dry season.

In response to Masagos Zulkifli’s comments Dr Nurbaya is reported as claiming that the Indonesian government has taken substantial steps to prevent land and forest fires.  Asserting national sovereignty, and possibly playing to the domestic audience,  she added that such steps are not because of pressure from other countries.

Dr Nurbaya insisted that, “We have been consistent in sticking to our part of the bargain, especially by attempting to prevent the recurrence of land and forest fires and by consistently enforcing the law. So, my question is – what has the Singaporean government done? I feel that they should focus on their own role.”  She continued insisting that, “There is really no need to comment too much on the part Indonesia is currently playing. However, with all due respect to my Singaporean counterpart, what are they doing? And where has it got them?”

Channel News Asia summarises her comments as asserting that, “the Indonesian government has taken action against companies – especially those headquartered in Singapore – found to be negligent in handling land and forest fires that occur on their concessions.” She added, “This is just one example of how we are not shirking our responsibilities and are doing what is expected of us.”

In conclusion she expressed appreciation for  “the input provided to us by our Singaporean neighbours,” observing that we “cherish our bilateral partnership,” but added “I would respectfully ask them to stop making so many comments, particularly when it comes to the fires and haze-related issues. We each have our own part to play and we should focus on carrying this out.”

On Friday, the head of Indonesia’s Peatland Restoration Agency Nazir Foead had also pledged at the 3rd Singapore Dialogue on Sustainable World Resources that there is “zero chance” that any haze this year will be as severe as last year’s.

To make matters worse last year last year, Indonesia increased biodiesel subsidies and raised the minimum bio content in diesel fuel to 15% from 10%. According to Reuters, this year the bio fuel content in diesel is supposed to be increased to 20% in 2016 rising to 30% in 2020. Ironically Indonesia will struggle to maintain this program since rude oil prices have dropped to a 12-year low of around $28 a barrel and palm oil prices have increased making palm oil less attractive for blending.

Whatever the blend that prevails, Sumatra, Kalimantan, Singapore and Malaysia will face substantial smoke haze one the 2016 dry season arrives.

environment, geography, Health, Indonesia

Forest Burning and haze in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.

Living with the haze in Singapore.

Thunder, lightning and rain were a blessing through the night. Listening to the gentle tapping of rain drops on the window confirmed I’d been right switching off the airconditioning and air filter last thing. Rain always brings an interlude of clearer atmosphere. This was no exception with the PSI dropping to 87 and the PM2.5 to 95 from peaks of 224 and 274 in the previous 24 hours.


Sitting here in Singapore over the past two weeks I’ve watched as levels of air pollution have risen. In this connected island nation with it’s ultra fast Internet gathering information about the problem is easy. The Haze Information Portal is my first reliable source of data. When the levels of air pollution rise to unhealthy I wear a mask to help filter out the PM2.5 the particles in the air that are smaller than 2.5 microns, the ones that can travel deep into the lungs.

The Air Quality Index (AQI)

Anyone living in a city listed in the Air Quality Index website can check their city’s AQI by using this link I’ve set up for South, Singapore. Just click on this link and search for your own city.


The pollution indices and color codes available on this website follow the EPA graduation, as defined by AirNow and explained in wikipedia.

An experiment

As an experiment I just walked about 300 metres to the Zion Road Hawker Centre without wearing my mask. The entire journey was conducted with PM2.5 at 167, in the red band. I wore a mask on the return journey. Now my nose is itchy, I’m sneezing, I can feel a burning sensation deep inside my nose and the back of my throat. My voice is slightly hoarse. I’m actually in an at risk group and I’m by no means alone.

This is the last time I’ll attempt the experiment.

Source of the haze

After a few days living with the haze, particularly if PM2.5 reaches Hazardous, which it has done, reflecting on the cause of the problem is inevitable. In our case the problem is Indonesia, Sumatra to be precise, although it’s not alone, Kalimantan also has huge problems. Of course none of this is new, it’s been going on for a while. A friend who lived in Singapore back in 1993-94 reports encountering the haze.

This season in 2013 was also bad for haze but arguably the worst to date was the period 1997-98. At that time major forest and peatland fires broke out in South East Asia. Some of the areas plagued by fire were already very familiar to me, notably the Kutai region of eastern Kalimantan. An El Nino induced drought brought the critical conditions necessary for fire to break out in areas that had already been partly cleared of forest cover and contained huge fuel loads. A total of 10 million ha of forest was burnt during that time, primarily in Indonesia, but also in Malaysia, Brunei and Thailand. The fires burned or damaged over 1.45 million ha of peatlands, about 4% of the total peatland areas in the region. One million hectare of peat swamp forest in Indonesia was damaged in this period (BAPPENAS, 1999). Fires in the area of peat soils were identified as the major contributors (about 60% of particulates) to the smoke and haze which enveloped a major part of the region and contributed to an estimated economic loss of US$9 billion. [1]

Indonesian environments and palm oil plantations

Most people probably think of Indonesia as a land of rice fields and rainforests, and it is, but it’s also a land of monsoon forests, mangroves, nipa palm swamps and swamp forests. It’s in these swamp forests that the source of the problem lies dormant. If they are left undeveloped or developed in sustainable ways the problem usually doesn’t arise, but unfortunately they are falling victim to the rapidly expanding oil palm industry. Indonesia is the world’s largest Crude Palm Oil producer with about 10 million hectares of Palm Oil Plantation, more than 600 Palm Oil Mills, about 120 refineries, and some palm kernel oil mills, oleo chemical companies and biodiesel factories.

Palm oil is the world’s most widely consumed vegetable oil representing 34% of all vegetable oils consumed with soybean oil in second place at 27% of vegetable oils consumed. As the world’s largest palm oil producer, Indonesia is responsible for 52% of the world output. Production grew 11% per year between 1993 and 2013. Malaysia produces 34% of the global output. Combined Indonesian and Malaysian palm oil production in 2012 was valued at about $40 billion.

Well established palm oil plantations

Around 70% of Indonesia’s palm oil plantations are in Sumatra and the remaining 30% in Kalimantan. These islands also contain stands of tropical rainforests. Early palm oil plantations were often established in areas where rainforests had been logged for their valuable timber.  One notable area was the coastal fringe to the north-east of 3°N 99°E in North Sumatra province then extending south-east into the inland areas of Riau and Jambi provinces.

Mapping the Sumatran palm oil industry

Oil palm map
    Coastal areas of Sumatra support extensive swamp forests 
 Acknowledgement: B. Barus, Diar Shiddiq, L.S. Iman , B. H. Trisasongko, Komarsa, G, dan R. Kusumo) Staf Bagian Inderaja dan Informasi Spasial, Departemen Ilmu Tanah dan Sumberdaya Lahan, IPB; Peneliti Pusat Pengkajian Perencanaan dan Pengembangan Wilayah, LPPM, IPB;  Presented in National Seminar Sustainable Peat Land Management in the Agricultural Land Resources Agency (ALRA), Bogor, May 4, 2012

Early oil palm plantation development tended to be mostly in well-drained areas with undulating to hilly landforms.

Sumatra Topography. (CCL. Author Sadalmelik)
         Sumatra Topography. (CCL. Author Sadalmelik)

Recent oil palm plantation development is being undertaken in the swamp forests and associated peatlands within the north-eastern coastal areas of Sumatra.

Tropical swamp forests and peatlands in Indonesia

Peatlands cover at least 9% of the Indonesian land surface, the exact area is somewhere between 16.8 and 27.0 million ha. They form in swamp forests. The process of peat land formation is illustrated in the following diagrams.

Peat Dome

Peat is dead organic matter accumulated in a wet oxygen depleted environment, it is about 90% water and 10% plant matter. Such a high water content creates what is called a perched water table in the peat dome. Water retained in a peat dome is higher than in surrounding areas.

Deposits can accumulate over 1000s of years and those in South East Asia have been forming since sea levels stabilised after the Pleistocene, at the beginning of the Holocene.

About 70% of tropical peatlands are found in South East Asia. Most occur in coastal or peri-coastal swamp forests or lowland river catchments in areas of Indonesia in Sumatra, Borneo (Kalimantan) and West Papua, Papua. They play an important role in flood mitigation during wet seasons and maintaining water supply during dry seasons.

Tropical peat domes can be up to 50 km wide occupying entire catchments between adjacent rivers.

Although peat swamp forests have many species of valuable dipterocarps limited access, and the preponderance of dipterocarps in the larger tropical forests within more well-drained areas, ensured that they were less disturbed until recently. Consequently they have remained an important habitat for animals. In Sumatra peat swamp forests are habitat for endangered species like Orang Utan, Sumatran Tigers and Rhinocerous.

A store of carbon

Peat deposits are a large and highly concentrated carbon store. Peatlands and organic soils contain 30 percent of the world’s soil carbon but only cover 3 percent of the Earth’s land area. [3]  It is estimated that carbon storage in peatlands is up to 58 kg per cubic metre. Their capacity for carbon sequestration alone makes them a valuable global asset.

 Exploiting Sumatra’s peat lands

Given the huge income earning potential of the palm oil industry the clearing of swamp forests is increasing. In Indonesia cleared peatlands under oil palm cultivation are expected to increase to between 6 and 9 million ha by 2020, amounting to about one-third of total peatlands.  Such a large intervention will have major environmental consequences.

At a global scale, CO2 emission from peatland drainage in Southeast Asia is contributing the equivalent of 1.3% to 3.1% of current global CO2 emissions from the combustion of fossil fuel. If current peatland development and management practices continue, these emissions are predicted to continue for decades. 

Methods of clearing

Clearing swamp forests and associated peatlands is a two stage process:

  1. canals are dug through peat domes so that water drains away.  This causes the peat dome to subside.
  2. remaining forest cover is slashed and burned.

The process is well documented in Singapore’s Straits Times newspaper of October 1, 2015. There are some brilliant graphics.

The CO2 problem

Once peatlands are drained they begin to release CO2.  Once they are burnt the release of CO2 increases dramatically.

In an average tropical peat fire 33 cm of peat is lost, which corresponds to 702 t CO2 ha-1 (Ballhorn et al. 2009; Couwenberg et al. 2009). This is more than 15 times the annual oxidative loss from 50 cm deep drained peat soil and exceeds average Holocene accumulation rates by 100 to 550 times. As a result of burning peat and vegetation in Indonesia during the severe El Niño event of 1997/98 about 1.8-3.0 Gt of carbon dioxide were released to the atmosphere (Page et al. 2002; Van der Werf et al. 2008b; Couwenberg et al. 2009). 

Subsidence in the coastal and peri-coastal areas where peatlands are drained and burned presents additional problems going into the future.  More severe flooding exacerbated by sea level rise could render significant cleared tracts of land peatland unusable.

Summarising the impacts


  • Finally the search facility in the Food and Agriculture Organisation website will turn up a rich stream of information on the problem and solutions

Why the air pollution and fires are such a problem at the moment

Apart from illegal and unregulated forest burning, three other geographic factors influence the problem, at any time.  These factors are climatic and meteorological. Their interaction can intensify or modify the air pollution problem on a given day.

A primary driver is the monsoon

The southern monsoon brings south-west to south-easterly winds to Indonesia and mainland South east Asia


aus to sing
Wind directions between Australia & S E Asia October 1, 2015.

The influence of the monsoon is easily shown in this wind direction chart for Thursday October 1, 2015.

While the Australian continent is still relatively cool, winds are spilling out of Australia as south easterlies. Moving off shore they become easterlies then as they pass over the Equator they are deflected becoming south easterlies as the pass over Sumatra.  Now they begin to blow smoke over Sumatra, Singapore and Malaysia.

Variations in Weather

The wind direction on a given day will influence the intensity of the haze blowing over Singapore. This is determined by pressure cells.

Synoptic chart of October 1, 2015

Variations in the isobars, particularly the wavy patterns along the Equator further influence local wind direction.


The southern oscillation plays an important role, particularly when the Indonesian and Philippines archipelagos move into an El Nino.  Aridity increases both intensifying and prolonging fire regimes.

areas affected
Areas experience reduced ocean temperatures and evaporation during the El Nino phase.
economics, Health, Indonesia

#Smoking rates in #Indonesia increasing: advertising largely unrestricted.

Several days ago I was impressed by the sheer magnitude of the Grand Indonesia Shopping Town. It could certainly be described as a small town given it’s extent and it’s complexity of functions and services. The base line is that there’s a vast number and variety of shops with a mind-boggling volume of goods.

An official website explains that Grand Indonesia Shopping Town consists of Grand Indonesia Shopping Mall, BCA Tower, Kempinski Private Residences and Hotel Indonesia Kempinski, the old Hotel Indonesia on Jl Thamrin.

The three story skybridge joining the east and west wings

The project was designed by RTKL Associates Inc. an architecture and urban planning firm with headquarters in Baltimore, USA. According to the website  ‘. . .  the core concept was to merge the grandeur of a cutting edge mega complex with the friendly atmosphere of a well-integrated small town.’ and this it has most certainly done.

Despite enjoying the experience of shopping in such a person friendly environment, my mind kept returning to one unsettling fact, the US$242 million Grand Indonesia Shopping Town project was built with money from the major cigarette company, Djarum, under a 30-year build-operate-transfer (BOT) contract.

Moving about the vast 7 hectare complex, images of the suffering caused by cigarette smoking disrupted my thoughts.  I recalled the story of the young woman, covered by Australia’s ABC, last year, who died in her 20s a victim of slip stream smoke.

There is much balanced and non-sensational comment available on the magnitude of Indonesia’s smoking problem. There is also the tragically bizarre, such as the infant with a 40-a-day habit.

In May 2010 Indonesia’s second largest Muslim organization, Muhammadiyah, issued a fatwa against smoking and encountered both political criticism and street protests.

Indonesia’s Religious Affairs Minister Suryadharma Ali cautioned Muhammadiyah against causing “public restlessness” suggesting they need act “more wisely”, such is the power of the tobacco industry in Indonesia.

WHO report
For a quick view of a report on prevalence of smoking in Indonesia go to the 2002 WHO report in Google docs.

To make matter worse, according to AFP reports, although excise taxes have recently been increased “prices remain extremely low by international standards, with a pack of 20 costing little more than a dollar. Even so, studies have shown that poor families spend more on cigarettes than on books and education.”

They also make some observations about the economic significance of the tobacco industry noting that the Indonesian government refuses to cut tobacco production levels

“British American Tobacco and Philip Morris have long recognised the opportunities in Indonesia. In March, Philip Morris’s local unit, PT HM Sampoerna, the country’s largest producer, announced a net profit increase of 31 percent to 5.08 trillion rupiah (548.64 million dollars) last year”

Colonial origins
The problem of tobacco’s economic importance is partly traceable to the Dutch system of enforced cultivation of cash crops, beginning from the 1830 through to the 1870s, when it was smewhat relaxed. The colonial administration forced cultivation introduced to Java. was known as the Cultivation System (Dutch: cultuurstelsel).  It compelled farmers to deliver fixed amounts of specified crops, such as sugar or coffee. To ensure its success the administration disrupted ancient irrigation system and practices that provided water for wet rice agriculture. A legacy remains in the significant tracts of land available to cultivate cash crops including tobacco.

Appealing to the young
Smoking is broadly accepted amongst the young and tobacco companies have been quick to target youthful dreams and aspirations, in their marketing. There is scarcely a musical or sporting event that isn’t associated with smoking in some way.

A street advertisement

The implied promises offer a life style that is exciting and transcendant, on the cutting edge, contemporary and life affirming. Fortunately the small print reads ” Smoking can cause cancer, heart disease, impotence and disturbances to pregnancy and fetuses.

Smoking on the increase
Smoking rates in Indonesia are on the increase, but in a country where the health budget is only 3% of GDP, there is little exacting health research to pin down the true costs of smoking to the nation.  University of Indonesia’s Professor Hasbullah Thabrany has studied the health effects of smoking and says the economic picture is incomplete because health care is chronically underfunded. Interviewed on Radio Australia, he says that if the Indonesian government ban cigarette advertisements near schools and in and on television when children are likely to be watching.