El Niño leads to more fires and toxic air pollution in Indonesia

  • Indonesia saw an increase in land and forest fires recently as the El Niño weather phenomenon brings a prolonged dry season.
  • Official data show a fourfold increase in hotspots up to September, compared with the same period last year.
  • Residents in some major cities like Palembang have fallen ill due to toxic smog from the fires.
  • Carbon-rich peatlands, which have been protected and partly restored through government policies and measures, are also burning, with more than 14,000 hotspots detected in peat landscapes in August alone.

JAKARTA — Parts of Indonesia are covered with toxic air pollutants from burning lands and forests as this year’s fire season is intensifying amid the El Niño weather phenomenon, which brings drier conditions.

The Ministry of Environment and Forestry identified 3,788 hotspots from Jan. 1 to Sept. 5 this year, a fourfold increase from 979 hotspots during the same period last year.

Most of the hotspots occurred in 10 provinces that are historically prone to fires — North Sumatra, Riau, Jambi, South Sumatra, West Kalimantan, Central Kalimantan, South Kalimantan, East Kalimantan, North Kalimantan and Papua.

These provinces had 2,608 hotspots from January to September 2023, a nearly sixfold increase from 441 hotspots during the same period in 2022.

Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar said September is a make-or-break time for Indonesia, as land and forest fires usually peak during the month.

“I’m always anxious during Sept. 6 to 16,” she told a parliamentary hearing in Jakarta on Sept. 6. “From my experience in the past eight years, those dates are the peak [of the fire season].”

The burning had emitted toxic smog, making it dangerous for people to breathe the air in major cities, such as Palembang, the capital of South Sumatra, which is home to large swaths of industrial plantations.

According to data from the country’s meteorological agency, BMKG, air quality in Palembang had been worsening recently.

Readings for PM2.5, a class of airborne pollutants so fine that they can be inhaled and cause respiratory disease, have been hovering around 60 micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m3) since the beginning of September, reaching 322 µg/m3 on Sept. 15 — 21 times higher than what the World Health Organization considers safe.

Air quality in Palembang, South Sumatra, during fire episode on September 15, 2023. Image courtesy of BMKG.

According to the standard by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), air quality in this range is hazardous with the entire population more likely to be affected by serious health effects.

This bad air quality has affected 37-year old Adi Surya Dirgantara, who lives in Palembang.

He said he and his three children had fallen ill from the thick smog that blanketed his neighbourhood.

“[Our] throats feel dry, [our] eyes are a bit burning and our noses are blocked,” Adi told BBC News Indonesia. “[I] have suffered from fever for the past one week.”

Official data show a recent increase in upper respiratory tract infections, with 4,000 more cases in August compared with July.

The BMKG said the land and forest fires had been exacerbated by El Niño, which is making a return this year after being absent since 2019, when the weather phenomenon brought a prolonged dry season and major fire season in Indonesia.

BMKG deputy on climatology, Ardhasena Sopaheluwakan, said this year’s dry season itself isn’t the cause of fires, as it only exacerbates the conditions.

“The dry season and El Niño are only climate conditions that serve as a backdrop,” he said. “Forest fires are obviously caused by human.”

A peatland burns during Indonesia’s 2015 fire and haze crisis. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Burning peat

The issue of fire is particularly critical in peatlands, carbon-rich ecosystems that emit large amounts of CO2 when they are burned and thus contribute substantially to Indonesia’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Fire monitoring done by peat watchdog Pantau Gambut found 14,437 hotspots in peat landscapes, or peat hydrological areas, in August.

According to data from Pantau Gambut, there were fires in 271 peat hydrological areas in 89 districts and cities and 19 provinces.

Another analysis done by environmental NGO Madani also found 45,000 hectares (111,197 acres) of peat ecosystems indicated to have been burned from January to August 2023.

“Fires on peatland need to be immediately handled because they could create smog that’s hazardous to the public health and could lead to economic loss,” Madani forest and climate program officer Yosi Amelia said.

Protected peat landscapes are not safe from fires as well, despite their protected status and ongoing restoration efforts, with 6,700 hotspots detected by Pantau Gambut there in August.

Many of the hotspots are in concessions, with 3,816 hotspots detected in 208 concession areas, such as oil palm and pulpwood plantations.

“The presence of hotspots in company areas indicates land and forest fires and brings the question on how serious are permit holders committed to preventing fires in their areas?” Pantau Gambut campaigner Abil Salsabila said.

Besides questioning companies’ commitment, Abil also questioned the government’s policies in preventing fires in concession areas.

Instead of strengthening efforts in upholding the law against unruly companies that fail to prevent their concessions from burning, the government instead plans to pardon illegal concessions, including palm oil plantations, inside forest areas.

This, Abil said, increases the risk of peat degradation, which in turn will increase the risk of fires.

Fire in Indonesia forest
Haze rises from a forest fire in Riau, Indonesia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay

Scale of fires

While this year’s fire season is likely to be more severe than previous years, it hasn’t yet matched the intensity of the fire seasons in 2015 and 2019.

Data from the environment ministry show that 90,000 hectares (222,400 acres) of land — an area larger than Jakarta — have burned so far in this year’s fire season.

Meanwhile, the analysis by Madani found 262,000 hectares (647,400 acres) of areas that have apparently burned from January to August 2023.

The majority of the areas that appear to have burned, 40,000 hectares (98,800 acres), were in oil palm concessions, followed by industrial forest concessions with 22,700 hectares (56,100 acres) and oil and gas concessions with 20,300 hectares (50,200 acres).

Meanwhile, in 2015 and 2019, fires burned 2.61 million hectares (6.45 million acres) and 1.64 million hectares (4.05 million acres) of lands, respectively.

The 2015 and 2019 fire episodes were so severe that they sent huge volumes of smoke billowing into Malaysia and Singapore.

Ardhasena from the BMKG said the risk of fires this year is still lower than that of 2015 and 2019, despite the return of El Niño.

“This is because the dry season [this year] is not as severe as 2015 and 2019, and the mitigation [efforts] have also improved,” he said.

Suharyanto, the head of the country’s disaster mitigation agency, BNPB, said there won’t be a repeat of the transboundary haze problem this year, despite the increasing number of hotspots.

“There are indeed fires but if [people] said the haze is tremendous and could disturb or blow to neighboring countries, I could assure that it’s not true for today,” he said on Sept. 12.

Haze blankets Pekanbaru on Sept. 20. Image courtesy of Riko Kurniawan/Walhi.

Repeat offenders

Some of the burning occurs in areas that had previously been burned, according to monitoring by the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), the country’s largest environmental NGO.

“In Central Kalimantan, South Sumatra and Jambi, we found fire spots in locations that were burned in 2015 and 2019. It means the fires are reoccurring,” Walhi forest campaigner Uli Arta Siagian said.

One example is the oil palm concession of PT Waringin Agro Jaya (WAJ) in South Sumatra.

Data from the forest monitoring platform Nusantara Atlas, run by technology consultancy TheTreeMap showed WAJ to be the concession with the largest number of detected hotspots in the beginning of September, with 627 fire alerts.

The company’s concession had previously burned in 2015.

In 2019, the country’s highest court found WAJ guilty of the 2015 fires, ordering the company to pay 466 billion rupiah (more than $30 million) in fines.

The repeat burning of concessions shouldn’t happen if the government strictly enforces the law and evaluates existing concessions, Uli said.

“The government fails to do strict monitoring, permit evaluation and law enforcement,” she said.

Banner image: Excavators try to curb the spread of fires in South Sumatra in September 2023. Image courtesy of the National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB). 

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agribusiness, Air Pollution, Business, Corporate Environmental Transgessors, Corporate Environmental Transgressors, Corporations, Environment, Fires, Forest Fires, Forests, Haze, Palm Oil, Peatlands, Plantations, Rainforests, Tropical Forests

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