Rains ease bushfire threat

Despite Mild El Niño, Scientists Expect Severe Indonesian Fires

Source: World Resources Institute, May 16, 2003

by Curtis Runyan, managing editor of World Resources Institute (WRI) Features

Thecurrent El Niño weather pattern that has caused drier than usual weather acrossSoutheast Asia since last July is once again expected to fan fires inIndonesia’s rainforests. El Niño conditions have caused below-average rainfall,which have left many parts of the country vulnerable to drought and fires.

SevereEl Niño events in 1982-83 and 1997-98 caused prolonged droughts that leftforests susceptible to fires that swept across large sections of the country.The 1997-98 fires, for example, damaged 10 million hectares of land, contributedto the deaths of more than 500 people, and cost an estimated $9 billion.

Thecurrent “moderate” El Niño episode is expected to last till the endof April. Waters in the Pacific have warmed by 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius abovenormal, whereas the “severe” El Niño in 1997 raised oceantemperatures 3 to 4 degrees above normal.

Still,the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) warned of an “unusual warmth inthe far western tropical Pacific” that could further exacerbate dryconditions. “The warming in the tropical Pacific is not expected to reachlevels that were experienced in 1997-98. Nonetheless, severe consequences insome regions are to be expected,” said the WMO statement.

Newresearch is finding that parts of Indonesia’s expansive rainforests areincreasingly vulnerable to drought and to fire even in mild El Niño conditionsand in normal years. Lisa Curran, a professor at the Yale School of Forestry whohas spent the last 20 years studying Indonesia’s forests, has found that humanimpacts on the forests, not just climate conditions, are a key factor behind thedroughts and tropical forest fires. “We are looking at the interactionsbetween people, fire, climate, and land use, and we are finding that thesynergies are extreme largely due to land-use change,” she said.

Drought-likeconditions aren’t sticking to traditional patterns observed in the past 30years. “The droughts are getting more frequent and irregular,” Curransays. “We’re seeing longer periods without rainfall; we’re seeing longdroughts in May, when there have never been droughts in May. Haze [from forestfires] was coming in early June last year, when it wouldn’t come until Augustpreviously.”

A studypublished in 2001 in the journal Nature reported that Indonesian forests thathad recently been thinned by logging or damaged by past fires were far morelikely to burn than undisturbed forests. In the 1997-98 fires, less than 6percent of pristine forests burned, while fires spread through 59 percent ofthinned forests. The extent of the fire damage was also considerably worse inforests that had been previously logged.

Indonesiantimber companies often leave in their wake large amounts of fuel brush, deadtimber, and damaged trees. Slash-and-burn farmers clear land to plant crops.Plantation firms deliberately set fires to clear land to grow their crops. Infact, in 1997 satellite imagery pinpointed most fires near to or in timber andoil palm plantations. Poor forest management is increasingly being seen as amajor contributor to the fires. “It’s definitely not just El Niño,”says Curran.

Since1950 Indonesia has lost more than a third of its forests. Forest cover hasfallen from 162 million hectares to 98 million hectares. And the rate ofdeforestation is speeding up. In 1980 the country lost 1 million hectares. Todaythe rate is 2 million hectares per year. About 3 hectares of forest are nowcleared every minute. Illegal logging increasingly accounts for a massive shareof the forests cleared. More than 10 million hectares of forest have beencleared illegally in Indonesia, according to one forestry official.”Deforestation on this scale, at this speed, is unprecedented,” saysEmily Matthews of the World Resources Institute, co-author of the 2002 report,”The State of the Forest: Indonesia.”

While drought conditions this year may not be as severe as five yearsago, many of the forestry practices common during the last epidemic of firesremain in place. Hundreds of fire “hotspots” had already been detectedin September and October 2002 before the region’s monsoon rains began.”Every year there are a lot more hotspots turning up in the satelliteimages,” says Curran.

For moreinformation, contact:


ManagingEditor, WRI Features, a monthly international news features service onenvironment and development issues

WorldResources Institute
e-mail: features@wri.org



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