Tag Archives: Smoke

Kalimantan smoke haze emergency

Around this time last year I wrote about the seasonal smoke haze that blights large parts of Southeast Asia each dry season. But last year looks mild in retrospect, as 2015 is shaping up to be the worst year on record. And without doubt the worst place for the worst smoke in this worst year is … our ‘home town’ of Palangkaraya, the capital of Central Kalimantan province.


This is no idle claim. The World Air Quality Index monitors atmospheric conditions in over 8000 cities and towns around the globe. It compares them based on the number of micrograms of fine particulate matter (less than 10 microns) per cubic meter of air. For the past two months, Palangkaraya has had the world’s dirtiest air – by a wide margin. When I checked a couple of days ago, for example, the worst places I could find were New Delhi on 350, and Izmir on 500. Most cities (including Beijing on 85, New York on 10, and Sydney at 15) were well below those levels. Anything below 50 is regarded as ‘Good’.

But the level in Palangkaraya showed up as ‘999’ – and that’s only because the system wasn’t built to show numbers of 1000 or greater. The actual figure for Palangkaraya that day was 3334. That’s ten times the level classified as ‘Hazardous’. It’s enough to take your breath away.


When we found the conditions had become intolerable in late September, we evacuated to Java to enjoy the (comparatively) fresh air of Jakarta. We got ‘homesick’ and so returned here about 10 days ago. However the 2015 Kalimantan haze emergency has worsened, and may still have a little way to run… But we are in good spirits and relatively good health.


The smoke occurs due to (mostly illegal) fires in several provinces on the Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Kalimantan. Fire provides an easy means of clearing vegetation from land which can then be used for plantation agriculture, particularly oil palms. They are set in primary and secondary forests, but the biggest and most problematic location is in the areas of peatland, dried remnants of the former peat swamp forests which have been largely cleared and drained by canals. Once established, peat fires are almost impossible to extinguish, as these fires can continue to smoulder deep underground for weeks. Smoke rises eerily from the bare earth.


The peat can be many metres deep, and consists almost entirely of carbon-rich organic matter. It is one of the largest carbon storage deposits in the world. Its destruction constitutes an environmental catastrophe as well as a health and humanitarian crisis, because the burning of peat releases not only carbon dioxide, but large quantities of methane, carbon monoxide and other toxic compounds to the atmosphere.


The 180 degree panorama above shows an area south or Palangkaraya that was once a peat swamp forest, now entirely deforested and drained by those canals. The peat, which has been saturated for hundreds or thousands of years, becomes bone dry, and highly flammable.


According to NASA, the 2015 fire season is likely to be the most damaging on record, surpassing even the impact of the catastrophic 1997 fires. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, there has been little or no rain for the past six months, lowering the water table and causing the vegetation to become tinderbox-dry. Secondly, this year is subject to a particularly strong El Niño event, delaying the arrival of the wet season, and reducing the total rainfall which may be expected. Thirdly, and most significantly, there is more human pressure on the landscape, as the total population has steadily increased, primary forests are destroyed, and an ever-increasing proportion of the land is allocated to concession-holders for commercial development.


Authorities have been slow to recognise the severity of the situation or to respond proportionately, but remediation efforts are now under way. Thousands of members of the armed forces have been mobilised, water-bombing planes and other assistance has been provided by Malaysia, Singapore, Russia, and Australia. The Indonesian Government has called an immediate moratorium on peatland development, and has sent naval vessels to provide for mass evacuations,  particularly of babies and small children with health problems due to smoke inhalation.


There are billboards and signs around the district aimed at discouraging people from starting more fires, which is good – but in itself it’s not much of a deterrent. This one says: “Stop pembakaran hutan, lahan dan pekarangan karena menakibatkan hidup kita sengsara!” – “Stop burning forests, fields and yards because it makes our lives miserable!”


But the scale of the disaster exceeds the capacity to respond, and emergency services are being stretched and overwhelmed. There is some (rather understandable!) anger about the situation, and there have been a couple of smallish protests, though remarkably few considering that this catastrophe could have been prevented.  But now even the head of the Indonesian Bureau of Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics (BMKG) has publicly described the crisis as “a crime against humanity of extraordinary proportions”.

The statues in the picture above of a happy family, which adorn one of the intersections in downtown Palangkaraya, have been fitted out with face masks. The sign that the girl is wearing says: “Kabut asap bukan bencana alam tapi kejahatan manusia” – “The smog is not a natural disaster, but due to human wickedness”.


It isn’t surprising that long-term smoke inhalation is having profound impacts on the health of all people living in the affected areas. Few homes are sealed against the smoke outside, and effective protective masks are not widely available or used.

It is estimated that nearly 500,000 people have contracted upper respiratory tract infections (ISPA), including over 52,000 in Central Kalimantan. Most at risk are people with pre-existing medical conditions (particularly asthmatics), the elderly, babies and infants. A number of deaths have already been attributed to the smoke, but it is difficult to establish precise numbers of proven fatalities.


One major and insidious issue is diminished oxygen uptake. Gases in the smoke, particularly carbon monoxide, bond far more readily with haemoglobin in the than oxygen does. The metabolic impact of chronic oxygen deficit can result in low energy levels and weakness, depression and mental distress.

The lifetime health effects of extended exposure to the smoke are uncertain, in part because the exact composition of the complex chemical emissions from peat fires is still not well understood. However the smoke is known to contain a number of toxic compounds, and there is likely to be an upsurge in incidence of chronic cardio-pulmonary disease and cancers in years to come.


My host organisation (YUM) is actively involved in delivering emergency assistance to those affected by the Kalimantan smoke haze emergency in the Bukit Batu district. There has been a large-scale distribution of N95 masks to participants in YUM’s agricultural and other projects. Copies of an information leaflet have been distributed in the community, and mobile medical clinics have been held, in conjunction with the NGO Dompet Dhuafa, the University of Palangkaraya and the Politeknik Kementerian Kesehatan (POLTEKKES) Palangka Raya.


YUM (whose office is just on the right of the photo above) is looking for funds to build on and expand its existing response to the crisis. The primary objective is to deliver basic first-line assistance to remediate some of the most urgent and critical needs resulting from the Kalimantan smoke haze emergency. This will include distribution of thousands of N95 face-masks, medicines, oxygen supplies and much-needed information to the 13,000-strong community of Bukit Batu. A mobile medical team will continue to provide diagnostic services and first line treatment for the thousands who are suffering from respiratory ailments, and ‘safe rooms’ will be established to provide a clean air environment for people to recover from respiratory distress.

If you’d like to contribute to this project, visit the YUM website at www.yumindonesia.org/donate/, and specify “Haze emergency” on your donation.

Smoke gets in your eyes


It’s the tail-end of the Dry Season (Musim Kering) here in Central Kalimantan. Here (and in parts of Sumatra) it’s also known as Musim Kebakaran (‘the Burning Season’), because of the prevalence of man-made fires in the forest and farmlands. From piles of rubbish and raked-up leaves, to garden plots, scrubby farmlands, entire forests – it seems like the whole landscape is being progressively turned into smoke and ash. Even the ground is smouldering in places, because much of  it consists of dried-up peat swamp, often metres deep, and once fire gets a hold … it just keeps burning.


The Dayak people have always used fire to clear small areas of forest in preparation for planting dryland rice and vegetables. But it was done on a small scale. Now everyone, not just shifting cultivators, is doing it. With much larger-scale cultivation of plantation crops (particularly oil palms), very large areas of both primary and secondary growth forest are being cleared, by chainsaw and fire. Indonesia has now overtaken Brazil as the ‘world leader’ in deforestation. And the fires have become an international issue, with Malaysia and Singapore complaining every year about the massive smoke clouds drifting over from Indonesia.


Most, if not all of the fires are illegal, and national and regional governments regularly announce crack-downs, prosecutions and punishment of offenders. There’s even a website that uses high-res satellite imagery to give live updates of ‘hotspots’ across the archipelago. However, a just-completed independent audit of the 17 largest forestry firms in Riau found that none of them (not one!) managed even a 50% score for compliance with the regulations. Along the Trans-Kalimantan Highway which is our main road here (locally known as Jalan Tjilik Riwut), there is an anti-fire billboard every few hundred metres. They proclaim, alongside a picture of the provincial Governor: “Stop Fires! Protect forests and fields from damage”. There’ll often be a smoking or burning field behind the billboard.


In Sumatra, the government has taken to handing out face-masks to passengers as they arrive at the airports. Here the Palangkaraya airport is often closed because the smoke is too thick for pilots to land their planes. Pre-schools have closed, and primary schools were all closed for two days last week. Vehicles drive with headlights on throughout the day.


We actually haven’t been affected too much by the smoke haze. It seems to have a cumulative impact on the health; some of the expats who have been here for the longest are suffering more than us, with several going to places with clearer air (like Bali – or even Jakarta!) for relief. Local people (by and large) don’t have that option, and so endure by being stoic.

We have air conditioning in our little house, and that helps a great deal. We also wear good quality masks when travelling on the motorbike, and when hiking. It has a certain ‘bandit chic’ about it, don’t you think? Nonetheless, we ARE looking forward to the arrival of the rains (probably within the next month), because that will spell the end of the Burning Season, and the end of the smoke…


And, speaking of smoke, could it be that attitudes to tobacco smoking are changing? When we were here five years ago, I remember reading that 70% of adult men in Indonesia smoke every day (women almost never smoke), and that there were some 5 million people working in the tobacco industry (as growers, hand-rollers of kretek cigarettes, distribution and sales etc). That made the industry a pretty powerful lobby, and there seemed to be little push to reduce tobacco consumption. Now you can still buy and smoke cigarettes anywhere and everywhere, though the price has gone up to about A$1.60 per packet of 20 (i.e. around 10% of the price in Australia, often for the same brands). Advertising for cigarette brands is still seen everywhere (on billboards, shop banners, posters), often with those absurd Marlboro Man / James Bond / Racing Car images, and words like ’smooth’, ’taste’, ‘mild’, ’satisfaction’ and ‘fresh’.

But there doesn’t seem to be as many people smoking as there were five years ago, and cigarette packets now carry warning pictures – mostly Grim Reaper-style images, and some of the graphic diseased-tissue photos as on Australian packets. We hear people acknowledging the negative health impacts of smoking – five years ago there were people telling us that smoking is good for your throat and lungs! My work colleagues were joking recently about the foolishness of people who assiduously wear smoke masks all day, only taking them off in order to have a cigarette!