Haze from In­done­sian fires may have killed more than 100,000 peo­ple – study

Malta Independent - - WORLD -

A smog out­break in South­east Asia last year may have caused over 100,000 pre­ma­ture deaths, ac­cord­ing to a new study re­leased yes­ter­day that trig­gered calls for ac­tion to tackle the “killer haze”.

Re­searchers from Har­vard and Columbia uni­ver­si­ties in the US es­ti­mated there were more than 90,000 early deaths in In­done­sia in ar­eas clos­est to haze-belch­ing fires, and sev­eral thou­sand more in neigh­bour­ing Sin­ga­pore and Malaysia.

The new es­ti­mate, reached us­ing a com­plex an­a­lyt­i­cal model, is far higher than the pre­vi­ous of­fi­cial death toll given by author­i­ties of just 19 deaths in In­done­sia.

“If noth­ing changes, this killer haze will carry on tak­ing a ter­ri­ble toll, year af­ter year,” said Green­peace In­done­sia for­est cam­paign Yuyun In­dradi.

“Fail­ure to act im­me­di­ately to stem the loss of life would be a crime.”

A spokesman for In­done­sia’s en­vi­ron­ment min­istry did not im­me­di­ately have any com­ment.

In­done­sian author­i­ties have pre­vi­ously in­sisted they are step­ping up haze-fight­ing ef­forts, through such ac­tions as ban­ning the grant­ing of new land for palm oil plan­ta­tions and es­tab­lish­ing an agency to re­store dev­as­tated peat­lands.

The haze is an an­nual prob­lem caused by fires set in for­est and on car­bon-rich peat­land in In­done­sia to quickly and cheaply clear land for palm oil and pulp­wood plan­ta­tions.

The blazes oc­cur mainly on In­done­sia’s western Su­ma­tra island and the In­done­sian part of Bor­neo, with mon­soon winds typi-

cally blow­ing the haze over Sin­ga­pore and Malaysia.

But last year’s fires were among the worst in mem­ory and cloaked large parts of the re­gion in chok­ing smog for weeks, caus­ing huge numbers to fall ill and send­ing diplo­matic ten­sions soar­ing.

The new study to be pub­lished in jour­nal En­vi­ron­men­tal Re­search Let­ters, which com­bined satel­lite data with mod­els of health im­pacts from smoke ex­po­sure and read­ings from pol­lu­tion mon­i­tor­ing sta­tions, es­ti­mated that 100,300 had died pre­ma­turely due to last year’s fires across the three coun­tries.

They es­ti­mated there were 91,600 deaths in In­done­sia, 6,500 in Malaysia and 2,200 in Sin­ga­pore.

Green­peace hailed a “ground­break­ing” study they said for the first time gave a de­tailed break­down of deaths from last year’s fires, but cau­tioned that the fig­ure was a “con­ser­va­tive es­ti­mate”.

It only looked at health im­pacts on adults and the ef­fect of dan­ger­ous fine-par­tic­u­late mat­ter, known as PM 2.5. It did not ex­am­ine the ef­fect on young­sters or of the other tox­ins pro­duced by the blazes.

In re­al­ity, in­fants are some of the most at risk from the haze, said Nursyam Ibrahim, from the West Kal­i­man­tan prov­ince branch of the In­done­sian Med­i­cal As­so­ci­a­tion on Bor­neo.

“We are the doc­tors who care for the vul­ner­a­ble groups ex­posed to toxic smoke in ev­ery med­i­cal cen­tre, and we know how aw­ful it is to see the dis­ease symp­toms ex­pe­ri­enced by ba­bies and chil­dren in our care,” said Ibrahim.

The study found an in­crease in the num­ber of fires in peat­land and in timber con­ces­sions in 2015, com­pared to the last haze out­break con­sid­ered ma­jor, in 2006, and that the num­ber of fires in palm oil plan­ta­tions fell.

Shan­non Ko­plitz, a Har­vard sci­en­tist who worked on the study, said she also hoped the model they had de­vel­oped could help those in­volved with tack­ling the an­nual blazes make quick de­ci­sions “as extreme haze events are un­fold­ing”.

Last year’s haze out­break was the worst since 1997 due to a strong El Nino weather sys­tem, which cre­ated tin­der-dry con­di­tions in In­done­sia and made peat­land and forests more vul­ner­a­ble to go­ing up in flames.

Pho­to­graph: AP

A young woman par­tic­i­pates in the tra­di­tional cos­tume and ri­fle­men pa­rade on the sec­ond day of the 183rd Ok­to­ber­fest beer fes­ti­val in Mu­nich, south­ern Ger­many on Sun­day.

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