Wildfire prevention and risk reduction for children’s health and wellbeing (part 1)

Large-scale conversion of natural peatland and forests to croplands on the islands Sumatra, Borneo (Kalimantan) and Papua has radically altered the lives and livelihoods of millions of Indonesians in recent decades. Slash-and-burn farming is a common technique of using fire to quickly clear land for new crops. Periodically, these fires spiral out of control and disperse smoke clouds -- known as “haze” -- across vast inhabited areas and international borders. Forest and peat fires affect both air quality and climate. These man-made disasters have devastating long-term effects on human health and well-being and the environment; tiny smoke particles endanger human lives, while greenhouse gases accelerate climate change.

Major fires in the annual dry-season of 1997 raised the problem of the “haze crisis.” Ever since, policymakers have been vexed with concerns for mitigating respiratory health risks and managing the impacts to the environment and wildlife. In June 2013, another haze episode in the Asian equatorial region led to the development of trans-boundary legal measures, including the ASEAN haze action-plan and charter on air pollution; a specialized meteorological centre was also established in Singapore to monitor and provide early warning of potential disaster.

In general, the drier the weather – the worse the haze. The 2015 El Nino event in Indonesia triggered what some have called “the worst environmental disaster of the 21st century.” Some 2.6 million hectares of land burned, causing economic losses of around USD 16 billion and emitting carbon at a rate of 15-20 million tons per day, at its peak – a figure exceeding the average daily emissions from all U.S. economic activity. The so-called “black carbon” and haze also reduced agricultural crop production by interrupting assimilation and photosynthesis of crops (Yongqiang et al., 2013).

Internationally, simulations have been developed to estimate the impact of the 2015 haze on health. One such exercise estimates that the 2015 forest fires will result in 110,000 premature deaths in the longer term, principally from respiratory health complications due to prolonged exposure to air pollution. The Air Quality Index (AQI) during the 2015 fires for Palangka Raya inCentral Kalimantan, one of the worst-affected population centres, reached more than 3000 (figure 1, below) – some 10 times the “hazardous” threshold set by the National Bureau of Meteorology, Climatology And Geophysics (BMKG). Peat smoke is especially toxic, as it contains large amounts of hydrogen cyanide – about 6 grams emitted for each kilogram of peat burned (Stockwell et al., 2016). It is worth noting that surgical (disposable) face masks are inadequate protection for heavy particulate matter and that even low levels of pollution from traditional crop-burning can harm the health of infants (Rangel et al., 2016).

Air quality in Palangkaraya, October 2015.

Though these modelling methods are well founded, their accuracy can be improved by referring to Indonesian epidemiological cohorts to sharpen exposure sensitivity and by verifying data sources. Meanwhile, the Government of Indonesia officially declared 10 deaths with the full burden of mortality and morbidity to be confirmed, while over 40 million people are said to be directly impacted by the haze.

Concerns have also been raised regarding additional absences due to school closures – impacting approximately 5 million students during the 2015 haze crisis (World Bank, 2016). Lower school attendance as a result of repeated illnesses and closures may not only negatively affect students’ academic performance and results, but also their motivation to pursue further studies. In this connection, research indicates that excessive school absence disrupts learning and is a strong predictor of premature school dropout – a critical consideration as the haze crises intensify (Moonie et al., 2006).

In the aftermath of the 2015 fires, the President of Indonesia declared a moratorium on activities that could damage peatlands, and the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) declared a fatwa on the use of fires for land clearing. Despite significant challenges, the Government of Indonesia, with the support of the international community, has devoted substantive resources to fire-fighting and initiated a law enforcement crackdown on forest burners. 2016, indeed, saw fewer incidents of fire or “hotspots”; however, this is generally attributable to the saving grace of a wetter-than-average dry season.

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About the Authors:

Johan Kieft UNEP – Regional technical specialist

Richard Wecker UNICEF Indonesia – DRR specialist


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  4. Rangel M.A., Vogl T. 2016. Agricultural Fires and Infant Health, NBER working paper series. National Bureau of Economic Research, Cambridge, Mass.

  5. The Reality Check Approach+ Team and UNICEF. 2016. Reality Check Approach: Perspectives of people affected by haze from peatland and forest fires. Jakarta: The Palladium Group and UNICEF.

  6. World Bank. 2016. The Cost of Fire An Economic Analysis of Indonesia’s 2015 Fire Crisis, World Bank Group. See: http://pubdocs.worldbank.org/en/643781465442350600/Indonesia-forest-fire-notes.pdf

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