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article imageEl Nino helping to fuel fires as Southeast Asia chokes on smoke

By Karen Graham     Sep 15, 2015 in Environment
Air Pollution Index (API) levels reached into the "unhealthy" range yesterday in many regions of Southeast Asia as the smoke and haze from forest and bush fires continued to spread.
In Malaysia, 29 of the country"s 52 air quality monitoring stations tipped into the unhealthy range. On Tuesday, authorities closed schools in Kuala Lumpur, three adjacent states and the nearby administrative capital of Putrajaya.
The smoke pollution has become so serious that the Indonesian government has declared a "state of emergency." Many districts have been handing out face masks, and the aviation and marine sectors have been advised to go on "high alert," according to abc.net.au.
Thousands of people have fallen ill in regions of Sumatra and Borneo as choking smoke from fires started by palm oil and pulp and paper companies continues unabated. The smoke caused by slash-and-burn practices, the use of fires to clear forested land, is considered a known risk in a region where palm oil and lumber rule the economy.
Cloud-seeding is expected to be tried again today to ease the haze says the Malaysian Meteorological Department. "However, this depends on the haze situation this afternoon, which may improve due to the changes in winds," National Weather Center senior meteorological officer Mohd Hisham Mohd Anip told AsiaOne yesterday.
Fires continued to blaze across Sumatra in early September 2015  consuming land and emitting a heavy...
Fires continued to blaze across Sumatra in early September 2015, consuming land and emitting a heavy shroud of smoke that covered the island from north to south. The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) aboard NASA’s Aqua satellite captured this true-color image on September 2.
NASA
Slash-and-burn versus El Nino
Indonesia's economy has put up with slash-and-burn agriculture for years. Farmers, lumber companies, and palm oil producers were not policed and the rest of Southeast Asia suffered the consequences. As the world began to learn of the negative impact this farming technique had on our environment, Indonesia promised to put a stop to the practice.
In May, 2010, Indonesia signed a letter of intent with Norway, promising to put a two-year moratorium on new logging, a curb on the palm oil industry and in general, reduce greenhouse gas emissions. For abiding by the letter of intent, Indonesia would receive US$1 billion.
In May of 2013, Indonesia extended the moratorium another two years. The $1 billion aside, Indonesia has not been successful in stopping slash-and-burn users. As Friends of the Earth campaigner Zenzi Suhadi said in 2013, according to the Jakarta Globe, "Companies and local governments have found all sorts of ways to get around the ban."
The BBC reports climate experts are saying the fires in Indonesia are being negatively impacted by the El Nino weather phenomenon this year. Indonesia is usually one of the rainiest places in the world, but El Nino's weather patterns have drawn the rain away from the archipelago.
"El Niño generally causes drier conditions over Southeast Asia and Australia, and the effects vary with the seasons," Robert Field, a Columbia University Associate Research Scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, told the BBC. Field added that El Nino's effects on Indonesia will likely last through the end of the year and possibly into the spring of next year.
Deforestation in Riau province  Sumatra  to make way for an oil palm plantation. Photo taken in 2007...
Deforestation in Riau province, Sumatra, to make way for an oil palm plantation. Photo taken in 2007.
Hayden
Difficulties in controlling slash-and-burn users
There are two challenges facing government authorities in enforcing the moratorium on slash-and-burn methods. One big problem is trying to decide who is responsible for the fires, and who is behind the acts. There are fines in place, but determining who to fine when local authorities are closed-mouthed can be a problem reports the Japan Times.
The other problem is that many forests are on top of massive areas of peat, built up over centuries. Peat fires burn underground and can burn and smolder for years. According to NASA, over half of all the fires reported in Indonesia's Riau Province were in protected zones or in areas where new development is prohibited under the moratorium.
Jan Seifert and Andreas Ufen, Asia experts at the Hamburg-based GIGA Institute, are saying there is not the political will to enforce the laws, and there is little coordination between the central government and local governing bodies. "The challenge is all too often that existing laws are not implemented and that government capacity generally is low," said Seifert.
The successive government mentality in not diversifying the economy, as well as the need for more palm oil by developed countries also plays a major role in the continuing use of slash-and-burn practices. The practice is a cheap way to clear land, seeing as there is next to nothing else in the way of industry.
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