Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
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.