SINGAPORE: With 2019 expected to bring hotter and drier-than-usual El Nino weather conditions to Southeast Asia, concerns are heightened about a recurrence of the 2015 haze crisis. The episode of chronic transboundary air pollution that choked the region in a blanket of acrid smoke had severe health, economic and environmental impacts.
Indonesia, a major haze-producing country, claims to be better prepared for the next intense dry season, expected to start in June this year. Indonesia’s confidence is linked to major land reforms undertaken in the aftermath of the 2015 haze crisis.
In 2016, President Joko Widodo introduced a moratorium on burning, draining and deforesting 4.9 million hectares of peatlands, amending a 2014 regulation.
READ: Combat future haze by working with Indonesia and ASEAN, a commentary
The primary source of transboundary haze comes from biomass burning in peat swamps. When naturally saturated peat swamps are drained for plantation agriculture, they become highly flammable in the dry season months of June to September, increasing the risk of biomass fires that release massive quantities of carbon into the atmosphere.
While Indonesia is taking strides to restore the health of degraded peat ecosystems, current legislation contains major oversights that are igniting new problems in government efforts to combat transboundary haze. There is a critical lack of knowledge about the role of water in preventing and suppressing deep peat fires.
At the same time, the government’s zero-burning policy invalidates indigenous knowledge of controlled burning practices that is needed to adapt to the rapidly changing hydrological conditions of Indonesia’s peatlands.
Indonesia’s Riau province on the central east coast of Sumatra is a leading perpetrator and victim of transboundary haze. Half of the province is composed of peatlands. Riau also hosts two-thirds of Indonesia’s pulp and paper production, covering around 1.7 million hectares, along with more than 2.4 million hectares of palm oil plantations.
When companies with global operations build dams upstream of communities, they often expose neighbouring peatland communities to harsher seasonal variations in the form of droughts and floods.
The closure of company dam sluice gates in the dry season to retain water on their concessions reduces the flow of water to smallholder farmers and communities, creating localised hotspots of heightened fire risk.
Without readily available water, many peatland communities are left unprepared to effectively respond to haze-inducing wildfires. In the rainy season, when plantation companies open their dam gates, they release excessive rainwater that floods surrounding communities.
Inter-seasonal changes in water availability are encouraging fishermen to work in the dry season. Their discarded cigarettes on combustible biomass have become a commonly cited cause of haze-belching wildfires.
The government has so far adopted a hands-off approach in dealing with water-sharing issues between companies and communities.
No big plantation company has been prosecuted for withholding water from adjacent communities. Nor have major perpetrators of groundwater pollution been brought to justice for leaking pesticides and fertilisers into communities that bear the cumulative burden of public health problems.
Overlooking the underlying problem of water sharing will exacerbate existing tensions between companies and communities. If water-sharing arrangements cannot be fairly resolved, the use of fire as a weapon to express grievances is likely to contribute to future episodes of transboundary haze.
The inability of peatland communities to optimally function under conditions of dry season water shortages fuels government and company narratives that local people are incapable of managing their own resources. Yet the current government ban on the use of fire for clearing land has delegitimised traditional controlled burning practices, which are now punishable by jail terms and hefty fines.
For generations, indigenous groups such as the Dayaks of Central and West Kalimantan have practiced controlled burning to remove excess biomass, destroy pests and prepare land for planting.
Likewise, farmers in Riau’s Bengkalis Regency used to create fire breaks before the fire ban by felling trees within a given perimeter and herding fire into the centre of an enclosure to contain it.
Before and during burning in the late wet season, farmers knew that they needed to remain mindful of wind strength and direction to minimise the chance of uncontrolled flames.
Failure to distinguish between safe burning and uncontrolled or accidental fires impedes the capacity of communities to sustainably adapt to the rapidly changing hydrological landscape of Indonesia’s drained peat swamps.
By targeting peatland communities, Indonesia’s current anti-haze legislation is missing the root cause of the problem, which rests heavily on unequal water-sharing arrangements.
Both water and fire knowledge must be shared in ways that are inclusive of peatland communities if governance efforts to deal with predicted El Nino conditions are to succeed. As a starting point, existing water-sharing arrangements between companies and communities that incubate dry season hotspots must be pushed toward fairer resolution.
Without greater attention to the nuances in how peatland communities manage their own fire and water resources, government efforts to combat transboundary haze are unlikely to succeed in the longer term.
Michelle Ann Miller is Senior Research Fellow at the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore. Zu Dienle Tan is a PhD candidate in the Department of Geography, National University of Singapore. This commentary first appeared on East Asia Forum. Read it here.