Indonesia's burning peatlands spread carbon across Southeast Asia
Kuala Lumpur: We reported last month that the El Niño weather pattern which originates in the Pacific Ocean may be the strongest since 1950. In Asia this past week, Luzon, the main Philippine island, was deluged with water but not too far distant, there has been little rain and over 100,000 peatland fires in Indonesia have been tracked this year and they continue to smoulder, releasing greenhouse gases equivalent to about 600m tons through September 22, a number that rivals annual carbon dioxide emissions from Germany, according to Guido van der Werf, a Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam scientist.
Indonesia’s health ministry reported on Tuesday that over 307,000 Indonesians have been recorded as suffering from respiratory illnesses since June.
"Slash and burn" clearing of the rain forest for agriculture by small farmers is an annual routine but in recent decades the demand for palm oil and paper, has involved local and foreign companies in arranging burnings, aided by corruption and a weak central government. It is against the law.
This year the worst fires are on the islands of Sumatra, and Borneo — which Indonesia shares with Malaysia and the sultanate of Brunei.
The BBC reports that the city of Palangkaraya in Central Kalimantan (Kalimantan Tengah in Malay) has been one of the hardest hit areas. The Pollution Standard Index, which measures air pollution levels, has reached more than 2,000 at times — anything above 300 is considered hazardous to health.
The World Resources Institute reports that according to estimates released last week by Guido van der Werf on the Global Fire Emissions Database, there have been nearly 100,000 active fire detections in Indonesia so far in 2015, which since September have generated emissions each day exceeding the average daily emissions from all US economic activity. Following several recent intense outbreaks of fires — in June 2013 , March 2014 and November 2014 — the country is now on track to experience more fires this year than it did during the 2006 fire season, one of its worst on record.
The smog across Southeast Asia is known in Malaysia and Singapore as "the haze" and the strong El Niño is extending the dry season.
Greenpeace says Indonesia's peat stores a massive amount of carbon — up to 60bn tonnes, which makes it a virtual carbon bomb if even some of it is released into the air. And that's not to mention the untold amounts of air pollution across the region.
Peatland fires can emit up to 10 times more methane than ordinary fires — a greenhouse gas with an impact on climate change 25 times stronger than carbon dioxide — according to the US Environmental Protection Agency.
Over 75% of fire hotspots in Indonesia occur on peatland: partially decayed, dead vegetation which has accumulated over thousands of years and is typically saturated with water — Greenpeace says it is virtually impossible to set alight in its natural state. But when the rain forest is cleared and drained to make way for plantations like palm oil, and pulp and paper, this carbon-rich material becomes tinder dry — and vulnerable to fires.
Singapore has put paper production companies with operations in Indonesia on notice that they will be monitored for contributing to haze pollution.
Several Singaporean supermarket chains have withdrawn products made by Asia Pulp and Paper, Indonesia’s largest paper company, after Singapore’s government named it among companies suspected to be causing the pollution.
Haze in downtown Kuala Lumpur clouding the Petronas Twin Towers Photo: Bernama
Scientific American reports that Louis Verchot, director of forests and environment research for the Center for International Forestry Research, is working with a team of researchers on the ground using an infrared spectrometer to measure the greenhouse gases coming off the peat. "He said the firefighting effort looks inadequate. In one instance, he said, 30 military showed up to a 7,400-acre fire with three water pumps and a couple of hoses. Firefighters are digging ditches in the peatlands to reach more water, which then dries out the peat, making it more flammable."
The Jakarta Post reported on Friday:
"The environment and forestry ministry has said that up to 90% of this year’s forest fires were caused by humans. The hot spots in Sumatra and Kalimantan, which covered 1,697 hectares, were owned by 413 companies, 227 of which were held with forest concession permits and 186 of which were owned by plantation companies. On Tuesday, the ministry declared Central Kalimantan as the region with the highest level of Air Pollution Standard Index (ISPU), at 1,950 — far above the hazardous threshold, which is between 300 and 500. Four units of Air Tractors and BE-200 from Australia and Russia arrived in South Sumatra on Thursday to help tackle the fires. Previously, the government refused to receive foreign aid on the matter, but later decided to welcome it, including assistance from Singapore, Malaysia, Russia, China and Australia."
Greenpeace video report
Pic on top: Satellite image from NASA's Earth Observatory, Sept 2015, showing Sumatra and Borneo.