Satellite imagery captures plumes of smoke rising from a forest land fire in Sumatra, Indonesia. World Resource Institute

Fires in the country have reached crisis levels, and taken a major toll on the air in cities.

While flames engulf parts of the West Coast in the U.S., fires are also raging in Southeast Asia. In Indonesia in particular, forest fires illegally set by private companies to make way for plantations have reached crisis levels. Many use a “slash-and-burn” technique, in which trees are cut and burned to clear land for cultivation. What often results are forest fires that lead to a toxic haze that hangs over cities and even neighboring countries.

On Friday, Singapore shut down schools and suspended outdoor activities after the city-state’s Pollution Standards Index readings peaked to 341 on Thursday. Any reading above 300 is considered hazardous to public health. That’s the highest level of air pollution seen there this year, but it’s nothing that Singapore and its neighbors haven’t experienced before.

Cities in Indonesia have it even worse, says Susan Minnemeyer, mapping and data manager at the World Resource Institute. Palangkaraya, a city of more than 220,000 people, has registered PSI readings that approach 2,000. “What happens is the poor air quality in Singapore tends to get all the attention, but the smaller cities in Indonesia actually have far worse air quality,” she says.

Indonesia has made commitments to lower greenhouse gas emissions, 80 percent of which come from illegal forest clearing, Minnemeyer says. But the number of forest fires have only increased.

Minnemeyer and her colleagues have been monitoring Indonesia’s fires using their Global Forest Watch map, which transmits dire images in real time. Indonesia and its neighbors are covered in red and orange dots, each representing a fire detected by NASA’s satellites. The ones in red are “high-confidence” fires, or forest-clearing fires, while orange represents low-intensity fires that result from activities like field-grass burning, or older fires that are smoldering.

On the ground, you might not see the dramatic flames that characterize many U.S. wildfires, but these blazes are nightmarish in their own way. “You might see the smoldering happening from underneath an entire field,” says James Anderson, communications manager for WRI’s forest program. The smolder can last for weeks, resulting in the dangerous smoke that’s enveloped most Indonesian, Malaysian, and Singaporean cities.

Singapore has repeatedly pleaded with the Indonesian government to put out their fires, even offering to lend a hand if they identify the companies responsible for burning forest land. A few arrests have been made, and if convicted, people can face up to 15 years in jail and heavy fines. But lax enforcement means many companies get away with just a slap on the wrist, says Minnemeyer. A major critique from environmentalists is that Indonesian officials have been reluctant to hand over the names of companies suspected of  illegal activities.

“It’s a very prominent issue in Indonesia and probably the leading story these past few weeks—and every year,” she adds.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. photo: A lone tourist in Barcelona, one of several global cities that have seen a massive crash in Airbnb bookings.
    Coronavirus

    Can Airbnb Survive Coronavirus?

    The short-term rental market is reeling from the coronavirus-driven tourism collapse. Can the industry’s dominant player stage a comeback after lockdowns lift?

  2. photo: South Korean soldiers attempt to disinfect the sidewalks of Seoul's Gagnam district in response to the spread of COVID-19.
    Coronavirus

    Pandemics Are Also an Urban Planning Problem

    Will COVID-19 change how cities are designed? Michele Acuto of the Connected Cities Lab talks about density, urbanization and pandemic preparation.  

  3. Illustration: two roommates share a couch with a Covid-19 virus.
    Coronavirus

    For Roommates Under Coronavirus Lockdown, There Are a Lot of New Rules

    Renters in apartments and houses share more than just germs with their roommates: Life under coronavirus lockdown means negotiating new social rules.

  4. Equity

    The Problem With a Coronavirus Rent Strike

    Because of coronavirus, millions of tenants won’t be able to write rent checks. But calls for a rent holiday often ignore the longer-term economic effects.

  5. Traffic-free Times Square in New York City
    Maps

    Mapping How Cities Are Reclaiming Street Space

    To help get essential workers around, cities are revising traffic patterns, suspending public transit fares, and making more room for bikes and pedestrians.

×