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A perfect storm: Fire, haze and a global health crisis

ASEAN experts on preparing for wildfire season amid COVID-19 pandemic
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In this file picture from 2015, firefighters fight a fire at night on the outskirts of Palangka Raya, Central Kalimantan, Indonesia.Photo by Aulia Erlangga/CIFOR CIFOR/Aulia Erlangga

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Southeast Asian nations are preparing for the possibility of an environmental emergency, exacerbated by the health crisis brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.

Poised on the brink of the regional wildfire season — which usually peaks in August and September — researchers, officials and civil society groups are concerned that the impact of the pandemic could boost the incidence and severity of uncontrolled fires, if mobility limitations and stretched resources get in the way of prevention and firefighting efforts.

They are also worried that haze could exacerbate coronavirus impacts across the region.

In a recent webinar hosted by the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) secretariat in partnership with the Measurable Action for Haze-Free Sustainable Land Management in Southeast Asia (MAHFSA) program, experts urged authorities, communities and the private sector to work together to prevent haze events and, in so doing, mitigate health impacts for COVID-19-infected patients.

As of August 12, there were over 344,000 cumulative cases of COVID-19 in ASEAN countries, which include Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, and more than 8,500 deaths.

Participants said they fear that governments in the thick of responding to this health and economic crisis, will likely be more stretched for capacity to prevent and respond to wildfires than in the past.

“Our governments’ financial and human resources are currently focused on COVID-19 responses, and person-to-person engagement and travel have been restricted, thus limiting enforcement availability and response, which may lead to increased illegal forest activities,” said Kung Phoak, ASEAN’s deputy secretary-general for socio-cultural community, in the webinar’s opening address.

Ravi Prabhu, director of Innovation, Investment and Impact at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and World Agroforestry  (ICRAF), added that “the restrictions on movement, business and social interactions due to COVID-19 will test the resilience of the fire management procedures, standards and approaches of ASEAN and its member states.”

Haze from uncontrolled fires has been shown to exacerbate existing respiratory conditions, and is as a result likely to make COVID-19 impacts worse – particularly when combined with urban air pollution, Prabhu said.

At some points during the pandemic, when lockdowns were widespread, air quality improvements were noted across the region, but as countries ease restrictions and economies grind back into action, air pollution and emissions seem likely to return to pre-pandemic levels, Prabhu said.

The Singapore Institute of Internal Affairs (SIIA) and the Indonesian Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysical Agency (BMKG) have predicted that wildfires in 2020 will be less severe than those in 2019 due to wetter conditions in many hotspot areas.

However, several critical areas – such as Indonesia’s peatlands – remain at high risk of burning. Basar Manullang, director of the Forest and Land Fire Management division of the Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forestry, explained that the Indonesian government has put early warning and detection systems in place for peatland areas, and has been applying early weather modification techniques (artificial rains) to reduce the likelihood of these crucial carbon-rich ecosystems catching alight.

Companies in peatland areas are also working with smallholders to prevent fires, although movement restrictions have made this more challenging than usual.

Manullang shared a number of the innovations his team is applying to fire prevention and mitigation this year. “During the pandemic, we modified the strategy and tactics on forests and land fire management; expanded use of technology and increased local networking became particularly important,” he said.

These tactics include – among other things – expanding the public fire prevention campaign on social media; using thermal closed-circuit television cameras for early fire detection; and setting up text message “blasts” for early warning.

Speakers from Thailand and Australia shared their experiences addressing the 2020 Mekong River Basin dry season fires and the 2019-2020 Australian bushfire crisis, respectively, while representatives of the Malaysian and Singaporean governments discussed the measures they were taking to address fire and haze in the fast-approaching regional fire season.

Presenters outlined the importance of strong regional and cross-sectoral collaboration to address the potentially-intensified environmental and health crisis.

“We must continue to join our efforts to combat Southeast Asia’s haze causes through strategic multi-stakeholder partnerships aimed at strengthening regional coordination, capacity and resource mobilization, ultimately preserving the health of people in the ASEAN region,” said Ivan Cossio Cortez, country director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific sub-regional office at the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).

Prabhu appealed for officials to follow the science and act decisively to address the upcoming challenges. “If there’s one thing we’ve learned from the pandemic,” he said, “it is that countries and regions that have managed [it] based on science and evidence, with good leadership, have come out in front.”

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For more information on this topic, please contact Michael Brady at m.brady@cgiar.org.
This research forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry, which is supported by CGIAR Fund Donors.
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