Southeastern Asia threatened by fires

Image By: Photo courtesy of NASA

Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia are literally choking under a thick haze of wildfire smoke caused by the yearly burning of forests for the production of pulp, paper and palm oil on the islands of Sumatra and Kalimantan in Indonesia. The smoky haze that has engulfed these nations had been described by the Indonesian Agency for Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics as a “crime against humanity.” Schools have been closed, roadways shut down and half a million cases of acute respiratory infection have been reported since July.

This annual burning of land creates a thick smoke all across parts of Southeast Asia, and this year’s haze has been the worst in 20 years. Most of the forest fires that contribute to this massive and yearly disaster are started illegally by farmers. Indonesian farmers have been practicing this “slash and burn” strategy to clear peat forest to make way for agricultural lands for decades.

Rain showers have provided some relief to the smoked areas in Sumatra and Kalimantan, yet other areas such as Central Kalimantan still have areas of dense haze. Almost 300 “hotspots,” or areas of significantly hotter-than- average ground temperatures, have been recorded in Kalimantan, as well as in Sumatra and on the island of Sulawesi. Indonesian President Joko Widodo recently cut a visit to the United States to devote his full attention to the haze crisis. He visited the most devastated areas of the country last Thursday.

The Pollutant Standards Index indexes in the worst-affected areas have nudged past a measure of 2,000 —any reading over 300 is considered hazardous to humans and wildlife. According to the Jakarta Globe, an estimated 43 million people have been exposed to particulates from wildfire smoke, with hundreds of thousands of cases of acute respiratory disease being directly attributed to the burnings.

Haze-related ailments have killed 19 people, and residents in the worst-affected areas will continue to be evacuated. Indonesian Social Affairs Minister Khofifah Indar Parawansa said Wednesday “every half hour, all district and neighborhood heads will get updates on the air index of their respective areas so that they can order an evacuation immediately.”

Additionally, a number of Indonesian naval vessels, including a medical frigate, have docked in Banjarmasin, South Kalimantan. Even though no evacuation has been ordered, certain ships are prepared to accommodate over 2,000 people if needed. The ships are reportedly available for use by anyone who wants to go aboard. Lung and respiratory expert Jan Arif Kadarman, who is serving on the medical ship, has treated a handful of patients aboard the ship in the last few days, including several small children.

The current conditions under which nearly 43 million people are living are ones that I would personally consider to be a crisis, but to call such a disaster a crime against humanity is a bit much for me. This is a practice that has been performed by generations of Indonesian farmers. They see no other technique as a more efficient way. However, I do believe that these farmers need to be held accountable for their actions. Traditional practice or not, these wildfires need to be put to an end.

I believe that Indonesian government needs to create harsh punishments for any farmer that may commit such a crime. I am well aware that starting these fires is already illegal, but it is obviously not being enforced. It should be noted that 8.1 percent of Indonesia’s total product exports is palm oil, an important part of the Indonesian economy. Enforcing any sort of sanctions against the farmers that produce palm oil could have serious repercussions on the economy of Indonesia.

Something else to take into consideration is that acute respiratory disease, also known as acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), is a life-threatening lung condition that prevents enough oxygen from getting to the lungs and into the blood. The fact that there have been half a million cases of such a disease reported by medical officials, is horrifying. These 500,000 cases of ARDS are why I believe the Indonesian government needs to step in. Having an economy that partially thrives off of an industry that is killing its people is unacceptable.

If no action is taken by the Indonesian government, they could be facing an even worse crisis in the near future. Several experts have shared their belief that the dry season in Indonesia may last well beyond the end of October, when monsoon season usually begins. If these wildfires cannot be stopped in the coming weeks, the large majority of Southeast Asia may need to be evacuated.

Jack is a freshman intending to major in journalism. Please send all questions and comments to

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