Asia, economics, environment, geography, Health, Malaysia, population, Singapore

#Peatland and forest burning for palm oil production continues, but at what cost?

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.

Air pollution over Southeast Asia in October 1997
Air pollution over Southeast Asia in October 1997

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

A palm oil concession in Indonesia's Riau Province
A palm oil concession in Indonesia’s Riau Province

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.

enso_iod

 

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).

fires_kompas_eng002
Based on a map appearing in Kompas, Tues 26 October, 2016

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.

Biggest Environmental Disaster of 21st Century

Topsfield  also quotes Erik Meijaard, an Indonesian-based honorary associate professor at the University of Queensland who says that “Indonesia’s fires are probably the biggest global environmental disaster of the 21st century”.

Meijaard wrote in The Jakarta Globe referencing the Mongabay Series: Indonesian Forests which noted that:

  • 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;

On 25 September, 2015, as haze hovered above AQI 300 in Singapore, schools and kindergartens were closed and protective N95 masks distributed. Levels of smoke haze pollution were far higher in Indonesia where schools had been closed in the previous month. In Malaysia the government announced that schools would be closed in areas with an AQI over 200. On Monday 5 October, 2015, Detik online reported that in Pekanbaru, capital of Riau Province in Sumatra, schools had been closed for more than a month owing to the smoke haze. Finally the Department of National Education Pekanbaru forced students to go to school despite the smoke haze.

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 quotes an ANZ research report that says, in Singapore, Shopping, restaurants, bars and outdoor entertainment will all suffer during this hazy period.

Among the events disrupted or even cancelled due to the haze were the 2015 FINA Swimming World Cup in Singapore and the Kuala Lumpur Marathon in Malaysia.

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.

In a report entitled ‘Indonesian haze: Why it’s everyone’s problem’ on 18 September, 2015, CNN observed that, it’s a persistent, annual problem that disrupts lives, costs the governments of Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia billions of dollars, and leaves millions of people at risk of respiratory and other diseases. The land that burns is extremely carbon rich, raising Indonesia’s contribution to climate change.

The CNN report also reminds us that in 2014 Indonesia was ranked the world’s sixth worst emitter of green house gasses.

Asia, Australia, environment, geography, history, indigenous, Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam

#BookLaunch of ‘Seen & Unseen: a century of stories from #Asia & the #Pacific’

 

This is a Chitter Media Production, produced and edited by Adrian Metlenko, camera operators Adrian Metlenko and Evan Darnley-Pentes.

Australia, environment, geography, history, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, religion, sociology, travel

The author on “Seen and Unseen: a century of stories from #Asia and the #Pacific”

Common views of Asia and the Pacific, from the outside, often confer undue prominence to such things as typhoons, tsunami, earthquakes, malaria or even magic. While these can be confronting realities in the Asia-Pacific region beyond such differences even more remains unseen and misunderstood. Frequently unacknowledged are the influences Asian and Pacific cultures exert far beyond their borders.

 

Seen & Unseen: A Century of Stories from Asia & the Pacific is 29 stories inspired by one family’s experience spanning three generations of change. It blends anthropology, botany, ecology, economics, geography, history, politics and spiritual traditions. While each story is cradled in reality and crafted with a careful eye for historical accuracy, frailty of memory, the natural passing of people and the need to protect others has rendered some fictional even when they are not.

Influencing this work is an acceptance that interactions with people from our own culture are generally tangible and familiar, but when beyond our immediate culture things change. Now meaning and understanding must often be negotiated in intangible, non-rational and unseen ways. Foucault’s notion of the third space has influenced this work. Another influence is the Balinese belief that reality is an interaction of Sekala (The Seen) and Niskala (The Unseen).

Precisely what comprises the unseen realm varies throughout the region. What might be understood as mere micro ecology, in the developed world, can have spiritual explanations in some Asian and Pacific cultures. In rational secular society people commonly eschew magic as mythology or superstition, yet in parts of Asia and the Pacific what might be seen as myths and misconceptions can possess the power of reality.

The stories

I begin this journey in 1914 with Sid Thompson and D Company, a tale inspired by the little known ANMEF sent to capture New Guinea from Germany. While easily defeating the enemy unseen forces took an enormous toll. Sid Thompson also appears in Red Poppies and Janur. Several stories address changing Australian views of Japan through the encounters of ordinary people. Joss Sticks and Cracker Night and An Encounter with White Australia reveal Asian influences in Anglo-Australia of the 1950s. First Landfall and The Sublime to the Horrific chronicle my own first bumbling attempts at being in Asia. Some 15 stories are set over an 18-year period in Indonesia from the comfort of urban to life to that of forest people yet to develop the habit of money. These begin with tales about engaging with manifest cultural differences and lead into matters of more global significance. Campaign and The General Election take two Australians and Indonesian friends through a transition to democracy. An Unusual Kind Of Thunder and In The Charnel House deal directly with the Bali Bombings of 2002 while My Second Meeting With Jonathan unfolds in its aftermath. Singapore 43 years On is about returning to Singapore, a city transformed. Vietnam A War Revisited is a story of the anti-war movement and the draft told retrospectively from Hanoi. Finally, Sid Thompson returns in the more metaphysical tale Headland.

The basic and enduring interplay of the seen and the unseen worlds is of great significance to those of us from the land that’s girt by sea. While we might choose not to see, to look inwards and to rejoice in the notion that our land abounds in nature’s gifts, regional and planetary systems are unfettered by such introspective cultural constructions.

Sales

You can purchase the book now from Amazon

 

 

Australia, economics, geography, sociology

#Trams: a short pictorial study by State Records #NSW

State Records NSW has a remarkable collection that’s been extensively digitised.
Since one of the themes of this blog is trams, or light rail as the rather over engineered contemporary version of a Sydney tram is called, I’ve planned a series of posts on trams.

Trams carrying race day crowds at Randwick Racecourse

Reproduction rights: State Records NSW

Globally trams are on the way back, actually they were always there. It was only the short sighted few who abandoned them in favour of the internal combustion engine.

Myopic politicians
Here in New South Wales myopic politicians systematically dismantled and sold off the world’s largest urban tramway system. They were thorough in their work, what infrastructure they couldn’t grub-out they buried under bitumen or allowed fall into neglect.

Where dedicated tramway land remained they either alienated or filled it in with ‘development’. Tramways infrastructure has all but disappeared from Sydney, except for those with a discerning urban eye. Rebuilding tramway networks presents a difficult task. Nowhere is the nature of the task more evident than in the suburb of Randwick. Yesterday this was driven home to me as I stood and looked at what was once a broad avenue of dedicated tramway running from Peter’s Corner (Randwick Junction) to Centennial Park.

This was the intersection of Belmore Rd/Cook St and Alison Rd. Between Coogee Beach and Flinders St Belmore was one of the few places where trams actuially travelled on a roadway. Elsewhere they remained on dedicated tramway en route from Coogee to the City.

Now as I gazed diagonally across the intersection towards Cook St I was reminded of just how much money politicians made for their respective levels of government, selling off swathes of dedicated tramway land for high density residential development.

The broad avenue of tramway descended past some fine old late Victorian mansions, some replete with classical statuary, before swinging past the vast Randwick tramways workshop.

Currently Sydney City Council is investigating the options for restoring some trams from the 1950s and 1960s, lying vandalised and neglected in what remains of the old Rozelle Tram Depot.

The six trams ferried Sydney commuters in the 1950s and 60s, and include the last tram ever to run on the Sydney Tramways network. They are at great risk of deteriorating beyond repair.

For more comment on trams see High Riser, a blog by Andrew, from Melbourne

Photo collection
The photo archives of State records NSW contain many fine images of trams from this area. Here are just a few.

Dr John Gerofi
In a later blog I’ll be interviewing Sydney Engineer Dr John Gerofi who has been a life long campaigner for trams and was instrumental in the campaign to see the construction of the Central to Lilyfield line.