A nation of fire: What should we learn from the 1997/1998 haze?

File Photo: Bushes that have caught fire are seen in the subdistrict of Rumbai, Pekanbaru on Indonesia's Riau province June 18, 2013.

JAMBI, INDONESIA - Although haze has a long history in Indonesia, regionally it has been a problem for ASEAN countries since 1997, when El Nino winds exacerbated the fires raging in the region.

That year marked the worst man-made disaster before the current situation. Haze largely comes from forest fires burning in Indonesia. Reuters reported back in 2009 that Indonesia's neighbouring countries, such as Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand (southern part) were covered by the haze in 1997, causing US$9 billion worth of losses to tourism, transportation and farming industries.

Forest fires, which reached epic proportions in 1997-1998 - covering 9.7 million hectares, caused destruction to the tune of $8.8 to $9.7 billion, according to the Interagency Mission Report.

Disasters are a regular occurrence during the dry season, particularly on Sumatra and Kalimantan, but the situation has deteriorated in the last decade in line with increasing land-clearing operations performed by timber and plantation firms.

Riau, which is located near Singapore, is the worst-affected province on Sumatra, while West Kalimantan is the main area suspected of sending a blanket of haze to Malaysia. Winds from the southeast and southwest have blown the haze toward Malaysia and Singapore.

Sufficient research has been carried out on forest fires, identifying both the cause and impact of the fires and attendant haze-related problems. According to Schweithelm and Glover (Institute of Southeast Asian Studies & International Development Research Center, 1999), one of the indirect impacts resulting from the haze was human ailments.

The irritant effect of fine dust particles on the nose, throat, airway, skin and eyes were the most common health effects of the haze. Most people experienced excessive sneezing, running noses, eye irritations, dry throats and dry coughs from the polluted air (Singapore Health Ministry, 1997).

Health experts stated that breathing the air in the worst-affected areas was equivalent to smoking up to 80 cigarettes a day (Frodsham et al, 2000).

Even worse, according to the Research and Development (RAND) Corporation's research in 2002, the 1997 forest fires in Southeast Asia significantly increased the mortality burden among the population in Malaysia.

The mortality burden was short-lived for most age groups, but was more persistent (up to 18 days) for those aged between 65 and 74.

The findings were also supported by Sastry (2002), who found increased mortality among older adults on the day after a high-pollution day in Malaysia; and Jayachandran (2008), who found that air pollution from the land ?res engulfing Indonesia in late-1997 led to over 15,600 fetal, infant and child deaths, or a 1.2 per cent decrease in survival rates for those groups.

Forest fires have become a global issue in the world's ecology and economy. This is due to the fact that forest fires interrupt sustainable development as they produce emissions and pollution, and influence ecosystem balance, including the socioeconomics of human beings.

Forest fires have been a persistent and recurring problem in Southeast Asia in general, and Indonesia in particular.

Having the largest tropical and peat forests in the subregion, Indonesia has for many years been regarded as the main producer of forest fires and attendant haze, the effects of which are felt well beyond its national borders, causing all manner of ailments to populations in neighbouring states such as Malaysia and Singapore.

To date, various efforts involving the central government, regional governments, local and foreign NGOs and the private sector have been made to prevent the recurrence of forest fires as well as mitigating and controlling them should they occur.

Some efforts have taken the form of short-term projects, while others are linked to long-term national and regional development programs.

Preventing and controlling forest fires is incredibly challenging and such work faces many obstacles. Despite a series of programs being implemented at local, national, regional and international levels, the obstacles that hamper the effectiveness of forest-fire reduction in Indonesia still remain.

These obstacles include a lack of awareness at all levels of society, constraints on institutional regulations, weak law enforcement, overlapping claims to land and forest resources, and the non-enforcement of national laws on zero burning.

The haze problem has become even more important since greenhouse gas produced by the haze is a lot heavier than that produced by other sources. From 2006 to 2012, Indonesia "benefited" from rainy seasons that lasted longer than the dry seasons. Now, however, Indonesia needs to increase its attention and be prepared for another El Nino phenomenon in the future.

President Susilo Bambang Yudoyono, via his Twitter account, said the Indonesian government was determined to decrease the haze in Riau within one month.

The question is, however, what will be done to achieve that target, and how long will it last?

Aside from that, forest fires are not discussed within sectors. The Forestry Ministry stated that very few forest fires were burning in Indonesia, as forested area in the country amounted to only 30 per cent of total land area; while the remaining 70 per cent of land was non-forested area, such as rice fields, plantations and so on.

It is possible that the aim to decrease the haze can be achieved by the Forestry Ministry, but what about outside the forests? Who will be responsible for the fires raging in those areas? The Agriculture Ministry, which oversees plantations, does not have any controlling or preventive programme, whether at a provincial or regency level.

It seems that haze pollution is a persistent problem that refuses to go away, since it is rooted in human behaviour and attitudes that are resistant to change due to the greed of the corporate world and the lack of coordination in firefighting and control policies at regional, national and international levels.

We need to find the best solution on how to protect people from haze pollution, not only in Indonesia but also in neighbouring countries; especially the most vulnerable, who live in remote, rural areas and who know little how to reduce the toll that haze pollution has on their lives.

The most vulnerable people in urban areas as well as rural areas are children, pregnant women and the elderly. Cost-effective measures need to be taken to protect the most vulnerable from haze pollution in every country in the region.

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