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Fires in Sumatra: Record Air Pollution in Singapore, Malaysia

By: Christopher C. Burt, 7:47 PM GMT on June 24, 2013

Fires in Sumatra Lead to Record Air Pollution Levels in Singapore and Malaysia

Fires set to clear land for palm oil plantations in Sumatra, Indonesia have caused smoke to drift over the Malaysian Peninsula (including Singapore) creating the worst air quality levels ever measured there. A state of emergency has been declared in Malaysia. This is a guest blog post by National Geographic Society photographer Michael Yamashita who covered the previous worst such event in 1997 for National Geographic Magazine.

A satellite image of the burn areas in Sumatra and consequent smoke plumes drifting over Malaysia and Singapore on June 19th. Image by AquaMODIS.

Michael Yamashita’s blog posted June 21st

As Colorado fights some of the worst wildfires in that state’s history, fires are also raging in Indonesia again and the polluted haze caused by them is the worst since I photographed the story, 'Indonesia’s Plague of Fire' for National Geographic in 1997. The fires we covered then, caused by the annual (illegal) burn-off of fields, forest and plantations designed to clear large tracts of land for new planting, are counted among the world’s greatest environmental disasters. They spread as far as Malaysia, Brunei, Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines and Singapore.

Unfortunately, despite laws enacted since then to prevent agricultural burn-off, this year’s fires are even worse, bringing down a shroud of poisonous smoke that again threatens Indonesia’s neighbors. And because most of the fires rage underneath the land surface, igniting the rainforest’s under-layer of highly flammable peat, fighting them is exponentially harder.

Singapore, which prides itself on its healthy “green” status, is particularly hard hit. The choking smog there has surpassed 1997’s record levels. Today (June 21st), Singapore reported the highest levels of pollution ever recorded, topping out at 401 on the pollution standard index (PSI). An index reading above 300 is considered hazardous and potentially life threatening to the ill and the elderly.

The 1997 fires, which were worsened by the effects of dry El Nino conditions, ravaged millions of acres. Even cities far from the source of the fires were enveloped in a thick, dense, noxious cloud. As soon as we arrived in Sumatra, writer Lew Simons and I, equipped with respirator masks, plunged into the murky haze that made it hard to tell day from night. As a volunteer firefighter back home in New Jersey, I am all too familiar with the toxic effects of smoke. We’re outfitted with SCBA (self-contained breathing apparatus) and get training in HazMat dangers. But what we saw, or couldn’t see, in Indonesia was unlike anything I’d ever experienced before. Air pollution levels skyrocketed, and trying to see, much less shoot through the smoke and soot was a challenge. However, the swirling fog and ash made for moody, almost ghostly images that were a record of the massive cost of the fires and the tragedy of lost land and lives.

Ingredients for an environmental nightmare: monsoon rains arriving late; the use of fire to clear land, practiced here by a farmer in Kalimantan, Indonesia; and industrial-scale deforestation. The resulting smoke from Indonesia poisoned Asian skies.

Rows of oil palms start off fast in a 30,000-acre tree farm wrested from Sumatran jungle. But drought and haze-reduced levels of sunlight caused crops and trees to wilt, resulting this year (1997) in widespread food shortages and a suspension of palm oil exports.

Farmers clearing and burning brush at a rice pond in Sumatra.

Palms sway in a dense haze of smoke.

Traffic gropes through a veil of toxic haze in Palembang on the island of Sumatra. On this morning in late October 1997, the air pollution index registered 800, indicating dangerous air quality. Fearing panic and political embarrassment, Indonesian authorities were slow to declare an emergency.

A shipment of surgical masks reached Jambi, Sumatra, but such masks provide little protection against particle-laden haze.

Pulmonologists from Jakarta treating a patient with haze-related illnesses at Gandus Public Medical Center.

Desperate officials in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia ordered that all high-rise buildings have water sprayed from their heights to dissipate the choking haze. At worst, before rains came in November (1997) and doused the fires, the pall spread over eight countries and 75 million people, covering an area larger than Europe.

Michael’s entire blog with additional photos may be seen here. All the above photos and text are courtesy of Michael Yamashita.

Who is to blame?

(Posted by Christopher C. Burt, June 24th)

Singapore’s normally friendly relationship with Indonesia has come under strain the past week as Singaporean authorities have scolded their Indonesian counterparts for not doing anything to prevent or control the raging fires in Sumatra. Singapore’s Minister for the Environment, Vivian Balakrishnan, flew to Jakarta, Indonesia last week to meet with Indonesian officials in a bid to “coordinate a response to the smoke problem”.

Air pollution index hit 401 in Singapore last Friday June 21st. Jogging in such air is probably not the healthiest of activities. Photo from REUTERS.

A senior Indonesian minister, Agung Laksono, had the temerity to chastise the Singaporeans for complaining about the smoke saying on Thursday (June 20th), “Singapore should not be behaving like a child and making all this noise. It’s not what Indonesians want, it’s nature”.

This, of course, is beyond belief, since the fires do not have ‘natural’ origins (like lightning) but are intentionally set every year at one time or another to clear land for plantations. Some years, like this year and in 1997, conditions are conducive for the fires to rage out of control. Indonesia is not alone in its disregard towards using fire to clear land for agricultural purposes and a similar problem exists in northern Thailand where fires are set every spring to clear land. Local and national officials of both countries pay lip service to efforts to outlaw and control such burns, but have never, in fact, done anything whatsoever to actually enforce fire bans.

In one regard, the Indonesians are quite right to point their finger at Singaporean and Malaysian interests so far as the cause of the fires since it is large Malaysian and Singaporean agricultural corporations that are developing the palm oil plantations in Sumatra (specifically Wilmar International Ltd, Golden Agri-resources Ltd, and First Resources Ltd). These companies all claim to have ‘zero burning’ policies and use only mechanical means to clear land. It should be fairly easy to tell, looking at the satellite images, if the fires started on their Sumatran concessions or not.

The bottom line, however, is that the lack of environmental oversight by the central governments of both Indonesia and Thailand illustrate their weakness and lack of influence concerning commercial interests within their domains.

Don’t expect anything to change in the near future.

Christopher C. Burt
Weather Historian

KUDOS: Michael Yamashita for his great photos and permission to reproduce a portion of his blog in this entry.

Extreme Weather Fire

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.

Reader Comments

Quoting BaltimoreBrian:
An article you might like.

Yudhoyono Apologizes as Indonesia Fires Shroud Region With Haze

Well, BaltimoreBrian, I have lived on and off in SE Asia for 35 years (since 1977) and still have a home in Chiang Mai, Thailand and I can assure you right now that absolutely NOTHING will result from these 'conversations' that the ASEAN governments of Southeast Asia have on this issue. They do this every single year as a matter of rote. And since 1997, when Mike shot his article for NatGeo, absolutely NOTHING has been done so far to deal with the 'burn' issue. Nothing, nada...

The problem is that the fires are local issues and the the local governments, whether in Indonesia or Thailand, are like little mafias. The central government has virtually no control over them. It's all about garnering influence at election time. So the local commercial interests far outweigh national, yet alone global, consideration when it comes down to vote time.
The world is being destroyed for sake of economic growth.
I remember Colorado went through a faze like this before. It was the mid 1970's and air pollution was high. We were going through our industrial era. We might want to criticize other countries such as China(Who by the way, claims they are in their industrial era). If it gets too bad and nothing is causing it, we might need to worry
Thanks for getting the word out about this plague that happens every summer.
When I toured SE Asia in the summer of 1992 that was the impressionj I had as well--although there was also more terrorism in Sumatra with the Aceh rebellion. Suharto was still in power too. I had hoped that civilian rule and the end of the rebellion would have enabled stronger civic institutions to develop in Sumatra.

There used to be a magazine called Far Eastern Economic Review. they had a section called Travelers' Tales with amusing examples of broken English.

There was a misprint in a Surbaya newspaper headline about one of Suharto's sons getting control of a company that made clove cigarettes. The headline read "Trade Authority approves clone monopoly of Suharto's son"
weatherhistorian has created a new entry.
Here is another article about the smog and fires in Sumatra.

Unspontaneous combustion