What you need to know about the wildfires in Indonesia – Causes and impacts

By: Chi Ngo
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October 2019 – Forest fires continue to wreak havoc on Indonesia’s western island of Sumatra, as well as in Central Kalimantan on Borneo. Hundreds of wildfires have spread across the islands, devastating ecosystems and creating smog so heavy that some regions were forced to close schools and cancel airline flights. 

According to an October report from the Indonesian National Agency for Disaster Management, nearly 329,000 hectares of land were burned in the first eight months of 2019. The report also identified nearly 1,500 hotspots under emergency alerts in six provinces. 

Indonesia’s disaster management agency identified the leading cause of the forest fires as slash-and-burn agriculture – the deliberate setting of fires to clear land for palm plantations. The fires worsened when the country’s dry season started in July. In an interview with Chanel News Asia, Environment and Forestry Ministry PR Director Djati Witjaksono Hadi also pointed to El Niño, a weather phenomenon that causes prolonged droughts in the country, as a cause of the fires’ rapid spreading. 


Impact of the Indonesian forest fires on wildlife

The Indonesian government has yet to report an official death toll from the wildfires. However, the effects of the fires on the environment and wildlife are already apparent. According to the WWF, Sumatra and Borneo represent 3% of the world’s forests and are home to many globally unique species. Many of these species are endangered, including orangutans, Sumatran rhinos, and pygmy elephants.

The fires are accelerating the already rapid deforestation in these regions, further pushing endangered species toward extinction. Even before the recent outbreak of large fires, Indonesian forests accounted for one-third of global carbon emissions caused by deforestation and land degradation. 

Human health risks created by the fires

According to Reuters, the Indonesian Health Ministry has recorded over 42,000 cases of respiratory infections that were likely triggered by the smog in Palangka Raya (the capital of Central Kalimantan), as well as in the Sumatran cities of Riau and Jambi. Indonesian authorities are providing masks, respiratory medicines and even oxygen at temporary health centers in Pekanbaru, the capital of Sumatra. 

Smog-induced low visibility was also to blame for the cancellation of a number airline flights in Sumatra and Borneo, with many others delayed or diverted. Flagship carrier Garuda Indonesia canceled at least 15 flights to the Indonesian part of Borneo from September 16 to 19, according to Reuters. 

UNICEF said in a statement on September 23 that the air pollution has put over 10 million children at risk. Poor air quality has impacted over 46,000 schools and 7.8 million students, with a number of schools forced to close for several days in September.  

The economic impact of the 2019 fires has not yet been estimated. However,  Indonesia’s last experience with widespread forest fires and haze in 2015, which The Guardian deemed the world’s worst environmental disaster that year, can provide a benchmark. The World Bank estimated in a 2016 report that the immediate cost of that disaster reached US $16.1 billion. 

The European Union’s Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service has reported that fires in Indonesia released 360 megatons of CO2 in the 49-day period from August 1 to September 18, 2019. For comparison, that is as much CO2 as France released in all of 2017


Neighboring countries lodge complaints 

Indonesia’s close neighbors, Malaysia and Singapore, also suffered heavy smog and poor air quality on several days in September. 

In Malaysia, the Straits Times reported that over 1,000 schools across Malaysia were closed on September 18 due to poor air quality. In Sarawak, the Malaysian portion of Borneo, the Air Pollutant Index of Malaysia recorded air quality at a “very unhealthy” level of 273 micrograms of fine particulate matter per cubic meter on September 19.

State news agency Bernama reported on September 19 that the Malaysian government distributed over 2 million face masks to students in impacted areas. The government also said that it would issue a diplomatic note to demand immediate action from Jakarta to resolve the wildfire problem. 

In Singapore, an environmental indicator called the 1-hour PM2.5 concentration reading peaked in the 131–153 range on September 19, which the National Environment Agency deems “unhealthy”. 

Singaporean Minister of Environment and Resources Masagos Zulkifli shared in a Facebook post on September 26 that Singapore had sent a diplomatic note to Indonesia expressing the nation’s environmental concerns. 

Who’s accountable for the fires? 

In a recent analysis by the World Resource Institute, data indicated that 37% of the fires in Sumatra have occurred on pulpwood concessions. The Guardian reported that the majority of the remaining fires are on or near land used by palm oil producers.

In response to the crisis, the Indonesian government has shut down at least 30 plantations where fires have been spotted, and are seeking criminal charges against four companies – three Malaysian and one Singaporean. However, Hadi said that the government could not reveal any details about the actions of these companies until enough evidence has been gathered to pursue criminal prosecution.

In a statement, Zulkifli said that “Singapore will not tolerate the actions of errant companies that jeopardise the health and lives of people here and in other countries, and which set back our efforts to fight climate change.” 

Aljazeera reported that as of September 16, the Indonesian government had arrested nearly 200 people suspected of causing forest fires. If found guilty, the suspects could be fined up to US $700,000. High-ranking officials in large companies involved in setting fires could face up to 10 years in prison. 

Meanwhile, Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s government has sent 52 firefighting airplanes to assist in the fire zones in Kalimantan and Sumatra. Unfortunately, this figure averages out to just one airplane for every 26 hotspots. 

According to the ASEAN Specialized Meteorological Center, several regions in Sumatra and Kalimantan continue to be beset by haze. As the dry season approaches its end in October, it is hoped that the coming rains will help to reduce the smog.