Scientists on Indonesia’s polluting haze

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While the eyes of the world have been fixed in horror on the Amazonian forest fires, the rainforests of Indonesia on the other side of the planet are now also in flames.

In the first eight months of 2019, over 300,000 hectares of land were burned by fire, and the past week has seen a surge in fire alerts across the entire Indonesian archipelago. According to Global Forest Watch, the 8,903 fire alerts is more than twice the average number for this time of year.

What makes the situation more complex is that 43 percent of the fires are fuelled by peatlands. These carbon-rich swamps become highly combustible when drained of water for conversion into commercial plantations, such as oil palm. Forming over a millenia, the ancient carbon locked in their dense layers is released on burning, causing CO2 levels to rise and contributing to global heating.

That explains why fires in equatorial Asia, an area that includes countries like Indonesia with large peatland forests, contribute 8 percent of global carbon emissions and 23 percent of methane emissions despite only accounting for 0.6 percent of the world’s burned area.

Indonesian peatlands are also among some of the most unique ecosystems on the planet, home to endangered species such as the endemic Sumatran orangutans, which is cited as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List .

Peatland fires can smolder underground for months, making them almost impossible to detect and extinguish. Their wet susbstance means significantly more smoke is created in comparison to other forest fires.

A noxious haze caused by the current fires has raised alarms across Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. So far, more than 300,000 people have succombed to acute respiratory infections in the Indonesian provinces of Riau and Jambi alone. Schools have been forced to close in both Indonesia and Malaysia, while planes have been grounded due to poor visibility.

The growing severity of Indonesia’s wildfires, which are not part of Indonesia’s natural ecosystem, have drawn comparisons to 2015 when 2.6 million hectares of forest burned. The equivalent of 1.2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide was released into the atmosphere, beating the entire America economy at their daily emissions expenditure. The World Bank estimated that the cost to the Indonesian economy of the 2015 fires was USD 16.2 billion.

Nevertheless, some people benefit from the fires – so who is responsible?