Indonesia ignites

Written by Science

The Indonesia forest fires have been the contributing factor to the large-scale air pollution that has been going on in Southeast Asia for the past three months. Neighbouring countries such as Brunei, Malaysia and Singapore were amongst those most severely affected by the haze, resulting in both health and economic impacts to varying degrees. Other countries in the ASEAN region such as Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Philippines have also been affected to a lesser degree.

The haze is a large-scale air pollution problem that has been happening regularly to varying intensities during the dry season in the region, with the earliest transboundary haze in the Southeast Asia recorded in 1972. These forest fires are primarily caused by firms and farmers engaging in illegal slash-and-burn practices as a relatively inexpensive means to clear their lands of unwanted vegetation mainly in the islands of Sumatra and Kalimantan.

First reports of the haze began in late June, and have persisted till mid-October when the Indonesian president reached out to Singapore, Russia, Malaysia and Japan to as for help in putting out fires. Indonesia has previously repeatedly refused offers of help from overseas countries to fight the fires, citing ‘sufficient resources’ as their reason, so this action hightlighted the seriousness of the issue.

The smoke has pushed pollution up to hazardous levels across parts of Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and southern Thailand, disrupting flights and forcing schools to close on bad days. There have been more than 140,000 reported cases of respiratory illnesses in the haze-affected areas in Indonesia, in addition to those in the other affected countries. Several people have also died due to the haze filling their lungs up with smoke, many of which were students and newborn babies.

Tourism has also been severely affected in all the countries due to the bad air and low visibility, and several events were a cause for concern in the week leading up to it. These include the 2015 Malaysian Motorcycle Grand Prix, 2015 Singapore Grand Prix and 2015 FINA Swimming World Cup.

“Forest fires are primarily caused by firms and farmers engaging in illegal slash-and-burn practices as a relatively inexpensive means to clear their lands”

Efforts have since been put in to quell the fires by Indonesia and Malaysia when they began daily cloud seeding on 15th September, and a few other countries using water bombers and cloud seeding aircrafts have also helped in putting out the fires and clearing the air. As of 2nd November, the air pollution levels in Indonesia has fallen to its lowest in three months based on the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) readings, but is still under strict observations as fires may burn again when a dry spell returns.

In late October, a 3,726-meter Mount Rijani volcano on the Indonesian island of Lombok began erupting. The ash from the eruption blanketed towns and farmlands across three Indonesian islands, and shutting down air traffic to a number of airports.

The Mount Rijani eruption, an addition to the five simultaneous volcano eruptions that happened in mid-July this year, further aggravates the current air pollution problem that the country is already facing.

Last modified: 16th November 2015

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