SINGAPORE: This year, Sumatra and Kalimantan have seen 19 deaths from haze-related illnesses and more than half a million people treated for acute lung infections. The almost 2.1 million hectares of land ravaged by fire since June resulted in a total of 1165 hotspots recorded in that area.
This makes it one of the worst years for the Indonesian haze crisis which has been a problem for over 40 years. The haze in 1997 was regarded as the most serious haze event on record, and experts are warning that the haze could be just as bad this year, or even worse.
Professor Swarup from the NUS Environmental Research Institute tells us that the fires causing the haze are especially difficult to put out, in spite of Indonesia’s best efforts, because they are burning over peatlands.
Prof Swarup explains what peatland is and why fires in Indonesia’s peat swamp forests are hard to burn out.
“Peat is basically partially decayed material. When you have deep peat and water is drained out, the fire will actually go below ground,” he explained. That means even after flames on the surface have been put out, peat fires will continue to burn underground.
According to Professor Swarup, large volumes of water and other chemicals have to be brought in to seep below the peat surface in order to put out the fires. For large areas of peat forests, the logistics become extremely challenging.
VIDEO: See what peat and peat fires in Indonesia look like.
HOW THE FIRES STARTED IN THE FIRST PLACE
Years of unchecked farming practices and land that was illegally given out for palm oil and timber plantations have turned these once fire-resistant lands into a tinder box.
The process of converting peatlands into plantations for growing commercial crops involve building canals to drain water away from the peatlands. This practice is what causes the land to be hazardously sensitive to fire and easy to burn.
“When we have to move water to these canals, the top portion becomes exposed to air and becomes drier. So once that top becomes exposed to air, it becomes vulnerable to - in such dry areas - forest fires, which we have seen,” Professor Swarup said.
Find out more about the causes and consequences of the Indonesian Haze Crisis in the full episode of Get Real: Heart of the Haze. You can also catch other episodes of Get Real, every Tuesday, 8pm (SG/HK) on Channel NewsAsia.