Between June and October of 2015, 127,000 fires engulfed 2.6 million hectares of land in Indonesia, tripling its carbon emissions. Draining peatlands and mangroves for agricultural production was the main driver of Indonesia’s summer fires. These fires would not occur without human intervention. 40% of the fires in 2015 occurred on peatland. Peatland, as one of the densest carbon stores on the planet, releases huge amounts of CO2 and the 21 times more powerful greenhouse gas, methane. Peat fires release ten times more methane than other land fires. Once peat catches on fire, it can continue to burn for months. This sustained burning and haze production leads to a “volcano effect” in which a decrease in plant productivity (as a result of the haze blocking out sunlight and polluting the air) leads to falling biodiversity. The fall in plant productivity and biodiversity reduces the ability of ecosystems to recover after shocks. With enough repeated stress, ecosystems can reach a tipping point of being unable to recover.
Indonesia’s air quality during the fires exceeded the maximum level on the international pollutant standards index (PSI); three times the level of hazardous. This incredibly poor air quality is reflected in the health consequences of the haze. The fires released fine particulate matter (PM2.5) causing 500,000 cases of acute respiratory infection in Southeast Asia and exposing 43 million Indonesians to smog. In a recent study from the journal Environmental Research Letters, the 2015 haze resulted in an estimated 100,000 deaths. The economic impacts of the haze have been great as well, estimated to be between 50-60 billion USD. The government’s disaster agency put the costs of the fire and haze at 35 billion USD, cancelling out all of Indonesia’s economic growth for that year.
Indonesia’s National Agency for Disaster Management (BNBP) is responsible for handling fires. BNBP has established provincial, municipal, and district level agencies charged with disaster management. BNBP seeks to enhance the capacities of communities and government to reduce risk of disasters, mitigation, and emergency response. Capacity building includes early warning systems, a disaster information database (DiBi), a standard for risk assessment, education and training, and the establishment of emergency operation centers. Indonesia’s Balai Besar Pengujian Perangkat Telekomunikasi is doing important work to expand technological capacities in disaster warning. SRC-PB/INDRRA is Indonesia’s stand-by force for emergency response that BNBP deploys during disasters. Further, President Widodo has instituted moratoriums on deforestation. Creating a single national map of land tenure is underway to enforce these moratoriums and assign responsibility for fire monitoring and reporting to owners. This policy, called One Map, pools together land and satellite data to help identify hotspots—areas in which fires are likely to occur. Conservation International’s Firecast Initiative as well as WRI’s GIS program (GFW) are contributing to the monitoring of hotspots. The Peatland Restoration Agency, created under the Ministry of the Environment and Forestry, builds canals to restore drained and degraded peatlands. Indonesia has a significant policy and regulatory framework to prevent future fires. Enforcement of these laws and reducing corruption is necessary for success.