The Great Roundabout in hazy Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan, in late October. (Photo courtesy of Bjorn Vaughn)

The Human and Environmental Cost of Indonesia’s Fire Crisis, in Numbers


NOVEMBER 11, 2015

Bangkok. Thousands of fires in forests and on degraded, treeless peatland in Indonesia in September and October have spread a blinding, sickening haze across the archipelago nation, as well as neighboring Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand.

Widespread deforestation by small farmers and large companies for agriculture, palm oil and wood products such as paper has left peatlands exposed to the sun. The dried peat and wood debris on these “forest cemeteries” are highly flammable.

Researchers say the fires are no longer limited to drought years, and are now an annual event, usually peaking around September or October.

This year has been particularly bad because of lower rainfall linked to the El Niño weather phenomenon, although recent downpours have doused some of the fires and dramatically reduced the haze and smoke.

Here are some facts about Indonesia’s fires and the haze:

* By early November, scientists had tallied almost 121,000 fires across much of Indonesia, concentrated in Riau and Jambi provinces on the island of Sumatra, and Central and West Kalimantan on Borneo.

* 1.7 million hectares of forests and plantations have been razed by fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan, according to government data.

* Fire is a cheap, easy way for farmers and companies to clear land for crops, but fires on peatland are difficult to put out, often smoldering underground for days or weeks. Only heavy downpours in the wet season can extinguish them.

* The Indonesian fires have emitted an estimated 1.7 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent so far this year.

* On many days in September and October, the CO2 emissions from the Indonesia fires exceeded the average daily emissions from all economic activity in the United States, researchers estimated.

* Scientists conducting research in Central Kalimantan found harmful compounds in the air including ozone, carbon monoxide, cyanide, ammonia, formaldehyde, nitric oxide and methane.

* Between July 1 and Oct. 23, the haze killed 10 people and sickened more than 500,000 in six provinces: Jambi, South Sumatra, South Kalimantan, Riau, Central Kalimantan and West Kalimantan.

* On many days near the burning peatlands, preliminary data indicated levels of particulate matter at more than 1,000 micrograms per cubic meter of air, over three times the level considered hazardous by the US Environmental Protection Agency.

* 20 percent of fires occur on oil palm concessions.

* Indonesia is the world’s largest palm oil producer, supplying half of the world’s palm oil in 2014.

Sources: World Resources Institute, Global Fire Emissions Database, Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and media reports.

Thomson Reuters Foundation