Indonesia — A PROLONGED drought in Indonesia, coupled with ongoing peatland and forest destruction, threatens to unleash what could be Singapore’s worst haze on record. Now, more than ever, we need long-term solutions to solve what is sadly becoming an annual public health emergency in the region.
Today is the third anniversary of the forest moratorium, an initiative that protects some, but not all, of Indonesia’s forests. It’s a step in the right direction, but the haze is a very visible reminder that more action is needed. With only months to go before President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s last term is up, he could risk his legacy going up in smoke unless he moves now to strengthen legislation to protect all of Indonesia’s peatland and forests.
Protecting these landscapes is the best long-term means of stopping the fires and avoiding a public health disaster. Locked up beneath forests or in massive swamps, peatlands are one of the world’s biggest carbon stores. In their natural swamp-like state, they are almost impossible to set alight. But decades of industrial- scale destruction have made parts of Sumatra a giant tinderbox, threatening the health of millions.
When peatlands are cleared and drained to make way for plantations, they become dry and prone to fire. Indonesia’s peatlands cover less than 0.1 per cent of the earth’s surface. But as a result of draining and fires, they are already responsible for 4 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions every year. The impact on our health is insidious. During El Nino years, about 300,000 deaths in South-east Asia can be linked to smoke from peat and forest fires, together with other forms of urban air pollution.