In­done­sia for­est fires may be­come ‘worst recorded’

The China Post - - LIFE - BY NICK PERRY

The for­est fires blan­ket­ing South­east Asia in chok­ing haze are on track to be­come among the worst on record, NASA has warned, with a pro­longed dry sea­son ham­per­ing ef­forts to curb a cri­sis that has per­sisted for nearly two decades.

Malaysia, Sin­ga­pore and large ex­panses of In­done­sia have suf­fered for weeks from acrid smoke bil­low­ing from fires on plan­ta­tions and peat­lands that are be­ing il­le­gally cleared by burn­ing.

Though the cri­sis grips the re­gion nearly ever year dur­ing the dry sea­son, sci­en­tists pre­dict the cur­rent out­break could sur­pass 1997 lev­els, when out-of-con­trol for­est fires sent pol­lu­tion soar­ing to record highs in an en­vi­ron­men­tal dis­as­ter that cost an es­ti­mated US$9 bil­lion.

If the fore­casted dry con­di­tions ex­tend, the re­gion could be en­veloped in even denser smog, ex­ac­er­bat­ing a cri­sis that has seen flights grounded, schools closed and tens of thou­sands of peo­ple seek med­i­cal treat­ment for res­pi­ra­tory prob­lems.

“Con­di­tions in Sin­ga­pore and south­east­ern Su­ma­tra are track­ing close to 1997,” Robert Field, a Columbia Univer­sity sci­en­tist based at NASA’s God­dard In­sti­tute for Space Stud­ies, was quoted as say­ing by the U.S. science agency.

“If the fore­casts for a longer dry sea­son hold, this sug­gests 2015 will rank among the most se­vere events on record.”

Pres­sure on In­done­sia from its neigh­bors has in­ten­si­fied this year as the fires have raged on, with Jakarta de­ploy­ing more than 20,000 troops, po­lice and other per­son­nel to fight the fires through wa­ter­bomb­ing and chem­i­cally in­duced rain­fall.

An El Nino weather sys­tem has made con­di­tions drier than usual in In­done­sia, but author­i­ties are hop­ing much-needed rains will ar­rive within a month to fi­nally douse the blazes.

It could be too lit­tle too late in Malaysia, where farm­ers have com­plained of poor yields due to the haze, and in Sin­ga­pore where the gov­ern­ment has launched le­gal ac­tion against com­pa­nies blamed for farm and plan­ta­tion fires.

But in more bad news, the worst of the smog shroud­ing the re­gion could be yet to come.

Herry Purnomo, a haze ex­pert at the In­done­sia-based Cen­ter for In­ter­na­tional Forestry Re­search, told AFP the dry sea­son was not ex­pected to peak in Su­ma­tra un­til next month, when more smoke was pre­dicted.

“It’s not over yet,” he said, adding the eco­nomic cost of the “hor­ren­dous” fires would be as bad as 1997.

Author­i­ties worry air qual­ity in Sin­ga­pore, which im­proved Fri­day to the lower end of the “un­healthy” range af­ter heavy rains overnight, could worsen again depend­ing on the wind di­rec­tion from Su­ma­tra.

In Malaysia, where weeks of fog- like white-gray smoke has forced re­peated large-scale school clo­sures out of health con­cerns, there’s fears the pro­longed dry sea­son could spark fires in Malaysia, com­pound­ing the dis­as­ter.

“That will be a dou­ble catas­tro­phe,” said Lim Teck Wyn, who or­ga­nized a protest march to In­done­sia’s em­bassy in Kuala Lumpur over the haze.

The an­nual haze cri­sis has per­sisted de­spite all ef­forts, es­pe­cially as plan­ta­tions ex­pand to meet ris­ing global de­mand for prod­ucts like palm oil, a key in­gre­di­ent in a vast range of ev­ery­day con­sumer prod­ucts.

The fires smol­der be­neath the sur­face of car­bon-rich peat­lands, feed­ing off vast quan­ti­ties of fuel, mak­ing them ex­tremely dif­fi­cult to curb as mil­lions of tonnes of green­house gas emis­sions are re­leased into the at­mos­phere.

The NASA-linked Global Fire Emis­sions Data­base has es­ti­mated around 600 mil­lion tonnes of green­house gases have been re­leased as a re­sult of this year’s fires — roughly equiv­a­lent to Ger­many’s en­tire an­nual out­put.

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