100,000 deaths linked to Asia for­est fires

New re­search should serve as a ‘wake-up call’ for ac­tion in In­done­sia

7 Days in Dubai - - SPECIAL REPORT -

In­done­sian for­est fires that choked a swath of South­east Asia with a smoky haze for weeks last year may have caused more than 100,000 deaths, ac­cord­ing to new re­search that will add to pres­sure on In­done­sia’s gov­ern­ment to tackle the an­nual cri­sis.

A study by sci­en­tists from Har­vard Univer­sity and Columbia Univer­sity to be pub­lished in the jour­nal En­vi­ron­men­tal Re­search Let­ters is be­ing wel­comed by other re­searchers and In­done­sia’s med­i­cal pro­fes­sion as an ad­vance in quan­ti­fy­ing the sus­pected se­ri­ous pub­lic health ef­fects of the fires, which are set to clear land for agri­cul­ture and forestry.

The num­ber of deaths is an es­ti­mate de­rived from a com­plex anal­y­sis that has not yet been val­i­dated by anal­y­sis of of­fi­cial data on mor­tal­ity.

The re­search has im­pli­ca­tions for land-use prac­tices and In­done­sia’s vast pulp and pa­per in­dus­try. The re­searchers showed that peat­lands within timber con­ces­sions, and peat­lands over­all, were a much big­ger pro­por­tion of the fires ob­served by satel­lite than in 2006, which was an­other par­tic­u­larly bad year for haze. The re­searchers sur­mise that drain­ing of the peat­lands to pre­pare them for pulp­wood plan­ta­tions and other uses made them more vul­ner­a­ble to fires.

The es­ti­mate of early deaths linked to res­pi­ra­tory ill­ness and other causes cov­ers In­done­sia and its neigh­bours Sin­ga­pore and Malaysia. It dwarfs In­done­sia’s of­fi­cial toll of 19 that in­cluded deaths from ill­ness and the deaths of fire­fight­ers. How­ever, the pos­si­ble scale of se­ri­ous health con­se­quences was in­di­cated by a state­ment from the coun­try’s dis­as­ter man­age­ment agency in Oc­to­ber that said more than 43 mil­lion In­done­sians were ex­posed to smoke from the fires and half a mil­lion suf­fered acute res­pi­ra­tory in­fec­tions.

The study con­sid­ered only the health im­pact on adults and re­stricts it­self to the ef­fects of health-threat­en­ing fine par­tic­u­late mat­ter, of­ten re­ferred to as PM2.5, rather than all tox­ins that would be in the smoke from burn­ing peat­lands and forests. The bulk of the es­ti­mated deaths are in In­done­sia, by far the most pop­u­lous of the three coun­tries and the coun­try with the big­gest land area af­fected by haze.

Fires from July to Oc­to­ber last year in south­ern Su­ma­tra and the In­done­sian part of Bor­neo were the worst since 1997 and ex­ac­er­bated by El Nino dry con­di­tions.

About 261,000 hectares of land burned. Some of the fires started ac­ci­dently, but many were de­lib­er­ately set by com­pa­nies and vil­lagers to clear land for plan­ta­tions and agri­cul­ture.

Ra­jasekhar Bala, an en­vi­ron­men­tal en­gi­neer­ing ex­pert at the Na­tional Univer­sity of Sin­ga­pore, one of five ex­perts who re­viewed the pa­per and were not in­volved in the re­search, said the study is pre­lim­i­nary and in­volved a “very chal­leng­ing” task of analysing the sources and spread of fine par­tic­u­late mat­ter over sev­eral coun­tries and a lengthy time frame.

Even with caveats, it should serve as a “wakeup call” for firm ac­tion in In­done­sia to curb peat­land and for­est fires and for re­gional co­op­er­a­tion to deal with the fall­out on pub­lic health, he said.

“Air pol­lu­tion, es­pe­cially that caused by at­mo­spheric fine par­ti­cles, has grave im­pli­ca­tions for hu­man health,” he said.

Frank Mur­ray, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of en­vi­ron­ment science at Aus­tralia’s Mur­doch Univer­sity, said the death es­ti­mates are not “pre­cise health out­comes” but their over­all scale should trig­ger in­ten­si­fied ef­forts to deal with the cri­sis. The study is a ma­jor con­tri­bu­tion to ad­dress­ing an in­ter­na­tional prob­lem, he said.

The study finds there is a high sta­tis­ti­cal prob­a­bil­ity that early deaths ranged be­tween 26,300 and 174,300. Its main es­ti­mate of 100,300 deaths is the av­er­age of those two fig­ures.

It pre­dicts 91,600 deaths in In­done­sia, an­other 6,500 in Malaysia and 2,200 in the city -state of Sin­ga­pore.

The re­searchers in­volved in the study say the model they de­vel­oped can be com­bined with satel­lite and ground sta­tion ob­ser­va­tions to an­a­lyse the haze in close to real time.

That gives it the po­ten­tial to be used to di­rect fire­fight­ing ef­forts in a way that re­duces the amount of ill­ness caused.

AN­NUAL PROB­LEM: In­done­sian sol­diers ex­tin­guish fires in Oc­to­ber last year

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