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Post-Pandemic Haze Concerns and How to Overcome Them

May 27, 2022 by Irene Chooi

Interviewees: Dr Lee Jo Kien, PFP Lead Analyst & Dr Eli Nur Nirmala Sari, PFP Peatland Restoration Expert

Residents in Southeast Asian countries are no strangers to transboundary haze. These annual occurrences can cost regional economies up to billions of dollars in losses. In fact, the World Bank estimates the choking haze of 2015 cost Indonesia over 16 billion dollars in damages.

The global Coronavirus pandemic has been in part credited for the relatively haze-free skies in the region over the last two years. The Singapore Institute of International Affairs’ Haze Outlook 2021 suggested reduced human activity due to the pandemic forced the agriculture sector to pause, which reduced instances of burning peatlands for replanting of crops.

Peatland fires are the main contributor to transboundary haze in ASEAN. While extremely valuable as a habitat for endangered flora and fauna, and essential as carbon stores and watersheds, peatlands in SEA have long been undervalued and converted into agricultural land through land clearing and draining. This turns these massive carbon storages into carbon emitters, which contributes a significant impact on the climate crisis. 

Drained peatlands are also highly flammable. Once exposed to fire, drained peat can continue burning underground for months and produce copious amounts of smoke even if the surface fire has been put out. As experienced in the 2015 incident, severe haze can shut down entire nations’ economies for months and strain national healthcare systems. Estimates show that 100,000 premature deaths were linked to this very incident, affecting lives in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia - highlighting the severity of this regional issue. 

With the dry season approaching, the ASEAN Specialised Meteorological Centre has warned of an escalation of hotspots and localised smoke plumes causing haze in Peninsular Malaysia and northern Sumatra in the coming months. The Malaysian Meteorological Department has also warned of transboundary haze between July and September.

People for Peat’s lead analyst, Dr. Lee Jo Kien explained the worst episodes of transboundary haze in Southeast Asia tend to coincide with the driest years since dry peat is highly flammable and notoriously difficult to extinguish, “While Malaysia has had a relatively wet year, letting our guard down as we enter the dry season can have dire consequences as peat fires are known to rage on for months once they start. It's key for government agencies, communities and NGOs that have been doing great work to coordinate fire and haze prevention to keep up their good work despite the wet year.”

While being concerned about transboundary haze, Dr. Jo also urged Malaysians to keep an eye on our own high risk peatlands, which includes Kuala Langat and Raja Musa in Selangor, Pekan in Pahang, as well as the Klias Peninsula in Sabah.

In recent years, the Indonesian government has strengthened law enforcement related to activities that have the potential to trigger forest and peat fires. However, People for Peat’s Peatland Restoration Expert Dr. Eli Nur Nirmala Sari explained the practice of burning peatlands for agriculture is still a huge challenge to tackle, “It is a habit that is difficult to change. The burning method is considered practical, easy, and cheap. Although new methods have been introduced, such as zero-burning agriculture, some of these methods without burning are still considered impractical to do and also require higher costs. It is not easy to change habits or mindsets that have long been practised or are prevailing in communities.

On this front, educating non-state actors and conducting capacity-building activities for peatland communities is essential in changing minds and highlighting alternatives to the common practices detrimental to peatlands. When taught essential knowledge such as water management, fire prevention, and sustainable use of peatlands through programmes such as the PFP Peat Ranger Training, communities are empowered to take action and protect these critical ecosystems that they and the world depend on, therefore reducing the risk of haze.

Capacity building programmes, while crucial, can have a bigger and wider positive impact when supported by all relevant parties such as government agencies, non-governmental organisations, and surrounding communities. Haze prevention must be a joint effort that involves all levels of society including state and non-state actors. From policy-making to on-ground capacity-building, all agencies and individuals have a role to play.  

Finally, “For those who live in or around peatlands, be aware of your surroundings to serve as informants in case a peat fire breaks out,” said Dr Jo, “Be vigilant in fire prevention protocols  around peat areas as a simple cigarette butt is enough to set off a peat fire. If you don't know where peatlands are, this map from Humanwatch and this map from PFP are pretty good guides to find out.”

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