Fact File

Q&A on fires and haze in Southeast Asia

As El Niño stirs up more fires in Indonesia, we look at the facts from last year's haze crisis in Singapore.
Indonesian firefighters trying to extinguish flames during the huge fires of 2015. Photo credit: Eko Prianto/CIFOR

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Editor’s Note: An updated fact file on the fires and haze was published on 30 October 2015. Read it here.

Editor’s Note: In June 2013, smoke from peatland fires in Riau province, Sumatra, choked the skies of Singapore and parts of Indonesia and Malaysia. Since the haze crisis of 2013, regional leaders have taken numerous steps to try to prevent recurrences, but the return of fires to the region in February-March 2014 made it clear that solutions for stopping the fires remain some way off.

In 2014, Singapore offered assistance to Indonesia and Malaysia to fight land and forest fires, while the number of fire hotspots in Sumatra rose again. Meanwhile, the El Niño weather phenomenon threatened to make 2014 a drier-than-normal year throughout much of Indonesia and Southeast Asia, raising the risk of fires across the country.]

In 2015, El Niño has hit, and the fires threaten to be the worst since 1997. 

In the video below, CIFOR scientist David Gaveau talks about the latest news about the haze and about recent scientific efforts under way to help understand the situation on the ground in Sumatra.

CIFOR published a Q&A feature about the haze in Southeast Asia to help explain how the fires are caused, why they persist, and what can be done about them. In the wake of new research and new developments in the haze situation, we are updating that feature, which follows.

Q&A on fires and haze in Southeast Asia

Fires in forests and former forestlands occur in Indonesia in the dry season every year, particularly in the provinces of Riau and Jambi on the island of Sumatra, and West Kalimantan and Central Kalimantan on the island of Borneo. The haze that spreads to other countries is mostly caused by smoldering (flameless) fires on peatland.

Fires begin and spread for many reasons, so it is misleading to think of “fires” as the problem — or even as a single problem. Complex socioeconomic, ecological and governance factors are involved, meaning that the problem — and the solutions — go beyond who actually lights the match.

Fires in Riau in June 2013 caused Singapore’s worst air pollution on record; fires in February 2014 closed schools and airports in parts of Sumatra.

How and where do the fires start?

  • Most fires are deliberately lit. Some then escalate and get out of control. Some may have been smoldering in peatlands for months or even years.
  • The World Resources Institute laid NASA satellite data over Ministry of Forestry concession maps in an effort to identify the sites of the 2013 fires.
  • New developments: CIFOR also made an analysis of satellite imagery for the area in Riau Province, Sumatra, which appears to have been worst affected by fires that caused haze problems over Sumatra, Singapore and Malaysia in June 2013. While several recent assessments have used NASA’s daily fire alerts to locate the fires, CIFOR additionally used higher-resolution imagery from the recently launched Landsat 8 satellite and from a drone to map fire scars, as well as rainfall records to assess climatic conditions prior to the fires, and carbon data to estimate associated greenhouse gas emissions. CIFOR found that the high-impact air pollution event of June 2013 over Singapore was caused by fires of limited extent and duration burning in recently deforested peat soil areas of Central Sumatra (in Riau Province). The 2013 fires were not as extreme as the 1997 and 2006 El Niño-induced fires, but rather a high-impact air pollution event preceded by a brief dry period. Nonetheless, it produced high fire intensity that made headlines because meteorological patterns carried the smoke into Singapore.

Why do people light fires?

  • Large companies use fire to clear land in oil palm and timber plantations on both peat areas and non-peatlands.
  • For local communities, smallholder farmers and companies, fire is a cheap and effective tool for clearing land for slash-and-burn agriculture and to access swamps. Once land is cleared, mid-level investors can also engage in land speculation, enabled by weak governance and unclear spatial planning.
  • Fire is used as a “weapon” in land tenure conflicts, usually between companies and communities.
  • Fire is a symptom of unclear land tenure; overlapping land claims exist between central and local government and between companies and communities.

How much does the climate have to do with it?

What laws in Indonesia aim to prohibit the lighting of fires?

  • Burning to clear land is prohibited under Law No. 32/2009 on the Protection and Management of Environment and Government Regulation No. 4/2001 on Management of Environmental Degradation and/or Pollution linked to Forest or Land Fires.
  • Possible penalties for those found guilty of breaching Law No. 32/2009 include fines and prison terms.

Why haven’t the legal restrictions worked?

Are there any other mechanisms in place that can help?

  • Indonesia’s forest moratorium prohibits authorities from issuing new permits for development on peatland. However, conversion to oil palm plantations can go ahead for concessions already awarded; some of these are on peatland.
  • The Indonesian government has introduced the Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil (ISPO) scheme, which bans the use of fire in plantation development. It will be mandatory for all oil palm companies in the country by the end of 2014.
  • Companies seeking to be compliant with Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) requirements must not use fire in their field operations; compliance is important if these companies want to sell their palm oil in eco-sensitive markets such as the European Union.

Why is the haze worse in some years?

  • The smoke haze in Singapore and elsewhere was generated mostly by smoldering fires on peatland. Smoke from fires in other land types is a less significant contributor.
  • The haze may be caused by peat fires recently lit, or by fires lit long ago that smolder and re-ignite. In particularly dry years, the peat below ground also catches fire and can smolder for months.
  • The haze lingers because the fires do too. Fires are in peat around 3 to 4 meters underground. Firefighters have to insert a hose into the peat to douse the fire.
  • Research has shown that extreme air pollution episodes in Southeast Asia are no longer restricted to drought years. Ongoing deforestation of peatlands will lead to more haze events with less predictability.

What are the implications for efforts to reduce emissions for climate change mitigation?

  • Peat fires are a major contributor to emissions from Indonesia. According to Indonesia’s Second National Communication to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), greenhouse gas emissions from peat fires increased from 172,000 Gg CO2-eq. (gigagrams of carbon dioxide equivalent) in 2000 to 451,000 in 2005.
  • Peat fires were the largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions in 2005 (larger than energy), when peat fires accounted for about 40 percent of Indonesia’s greenhouse gas emissions.
  • 2009 assessment from Bappenas (Indonesia’s National Development and Planning Agency) suggests that, between 2000 and 2006, Indonesia’s peatland greenhouse gas emissions from fire, peat oxidation and loss of above-ground biomass through deforestation amounted to an average of 903,000 Gg CO2 annually.
  • Another estimate puts the carbon release of the 1997 fires at 1.45 Gt (gigatons), equivalent to 0.73 ppmv (parts per million by volume) of CO2, or almost half the annual global atmospheric CO2 growth.
  • Indonesia has voluntarily committed to mitigating climate change by reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 26 percent by 2020 and 41 percent by 2050. More than half of this reduction was meant to come from the forestry/peatlands sector. Avoiding peat fires is therefore crucial for Indonesia to meet its targets.
  • In 1997-1998, carbon emissions were high enough to elevate Indonesia to one of the largest global polluters.

What was the relationship between oil palm and the 2013 haze crisis?

  • The haze crisis was, at least in part, caused by the clearing of land for plantation estates.
  • According to the World Resources Institute blog, 20 percent of the fires from 12 to 20 June 2013 were in oil palm concessions, based on satellite data from NASA mapped onto the Ministry of Forestry’s concession maps.
  • Recent CIFOR research has found that communities also occupy land in concessions, and that some fires started outside and spread into concession areas.

How much has the haze crisis likely cost?

  • No comprehensive estimates have yet been made of the cost of the fires and haze in June 2013 or early 2014. Many costs have to be factored in:
    – losses to agricultural crops, timber, non-timber forest products
    – firefighting costs
    – infrastructure damage
    – damage to health, tourism and transportation
    – damage to ecosystem services of forests, such as flood protection, soil regulation, siltation protection, biodiversity and climate change mitigation and adaptation
    – carbon emissions
    – loss of work productivity
  • For the 1997/98 fires, an estimate by WWF and the Environmental Emergency Project (EEP) of the Indonesian Ministry of Environment arrived at figures of more than US$6 billion.
  • Based on the 2004 carbon market price, emissions from the 1997 fire episode were worth around US$3.6 billion.
  • The 1997 fires adversely affected the health, property and livelihoods of some 75 million people.

What steps have been taken in the aftermath of these fires?

For journalists seeking interviews and further information on this topic, please contact CIFOR Asia Regional Communications Coordinator by email at a.hasan@cgiar.org or by telephone at +62 811 8609 338.

CIFOR’s research on fires and haze is part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry.

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