Wildfire prevention and risk reduction for children’s health and wellbeing (part 2)

One of the key lessons learned is that suppressing fires on drained deep tropical peat lands is extremely difficult, ineffective, and costly, both in terms of the health of those fighting the fires as well as the financial costs. The total economic loss of the fires is already in excess of USD$15 billion (Prof. Purnomo, 2015), which does not include indirect economic losses such as the loss of biodiversity and the irreversible, long-term health impacts. To revert these trends and avoid related impacts, peat land and peat forest restoration action is critical. UN Environment, as part of the UN-REDD Programme, is working to support the government of Indonesia to take the necessary action. One example is the support to the Fire Risk System, which is used to inform the Indonesian stakeholders so they can take early and better targeted action on fire suppression, thus reducing vulnerability to fire. A clear example of action was a meeting convened by UN Environment with Indonesia’s Peatland Restoration Agency to develop an action plan for the 2017 fire season by disseminating fire early warning information, thus enabling better informed action, reduced fire risks and consequent GHG emissions, and most importantly, less suffering for children.

Long-term paradigm shifts need to be initiated including moving toward the sustainable management of peat lands. In conjunction with fire-fighting efforts, there is an urgent need for a comprehensive national fire-fighting strategy and evidence-based actions at all levels of government, drawing from the country’s own experience as well as international experiences in forest fire prevention.

Targeted ecological restoration, meanwhile, in particular large-scale rewetting of degraded peat and reforestation of hydrologically restored peat lands, can lessen the frequency and severity of fires, improve air quality, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and enable Indonesia to make substantial progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 – especially if this supported by flanking fiscal reform policies that enable large scale transition to alternative crops. There are also REDD+ based finance options for which the Government of Indonesia is laying the foundations, as part of the establishment of economic environmental instruments as mandated under Law No. 32/2008, in combination with a sound legal framework.

UN Environment and UNICEF Indonesia have partnered with Pulse Lab Jakarta to develop innovative solutions to stop the fires, reduce the risks of exposure to haze, and address the lifelong disadvantages for children caused by school disruption in chronically affected communities. The collaboration aims to help the Indonesian government strengthen policies for improving peat land management, protect vulnerable populations and reduce the negative impact of these fires on key Sustainable Development Goals.

Partners have developed advanced tools in consultation with the Government of Indonesia for forecasting fire-prone areas (the ‘Fire Risk System’ developed by UN Environment/IPB University) as well as real-time analysis of social media, news and public information for tracking human response to fires and air pollution (the ‘Haze Gazer’ developed by Pulse Lab Jakarta). These tools have the potential for use by all levels of government and the community.

To better understand the drivers and health consequences of the annual haze crisis, UNICEF commissioned research on behavioural dimensions, thus placing affected people at the heart of the study. This research, as well as a health impact study and policy analysis with a focus on young children, will be presented to the public and decision-makers in August of 2017.

A child in Jambi made a body map. Yellow dots indicate where they felt pain during times of severe haze. Reality Check Approach and UNICEF, 2016.

In line with the research, human-centred design concepts have also been utilized to develop practical solutions (prototypes) for families and service providers in haze-affected areas. One of the prototypes involves proposals for shifting school schedules and preparing for the use of a haze-proof classroom in a community to limit children’s exposure to and from their usual school building. This will be accompanied by guidance on a low-cost ‘haze emergency kit’ to reduce exposure to ambient and indoor pollution, including appropriate masks, locally-produced air purifiers, and measures for air infiltration and ventilation.

Another prototype involves community-based and personal air quality monitoring. Sensors positioned in locations such as homes, schools, health centres and mosques will better map exposure and communicate risk to members of the community. This information can shape public health messaging targeting vulnerable groups and inform standard operating procedures (SOPs) to help communities formulate contingency plans for when air quality approaches hazardous levels.

Partners are currently testing such prototypes and plan to work with adolescents and young people to contextualize them ahead of the 2017 fire season. Government and a wide variety of stakeholders including the private sector and donors play a critical role in supporting the conversion of these prototypes into standardised and scalable risk reduction measures.

The challenge of mitigating haze’s impacts requires assertive action and long-term commitment. Aside from fighting fires through enforcing existing laws and robust forest protection measures, there are opportunities for the Government of Indonesia to lead in research (longitudinal studies) on the scale of human impact to date, and to ensure the continuous monitoring of health and wellbeing, especially among children. Government can bring the insights generated by the partnership into the realm of policy, enacting measures to better protect a child’s right to health and education in the age of haze.


Johan Kieft is regional technical specialist with UN Environment and can be reached under johan.kieft@unep.org

Richard Wecker is DRR specialist with UNICEF Indonesia


UNDP. 2015. Discussion on forest and land fires held by UNDP Indonesia, October 16, 2015.

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