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The Effects of Haze on Health, the Economy and the Environment

November 15, 2014

Effects on Human Health

Forest fires occur every year in Indonesia and its effects can be felt throughout the year locally and internationally. In the past decade, the year 2006 has witnessed the worst case of forest fire in Indonesia. The worst case of forest fires in Indonesia’s recorded history occurred in 1997.

In Indonesia

Following the 1997 fires, an estimated 20 million people in Indonesia suffered from respiratory problems, with 19,800-48,100 premature mortalities (Heil, 2007). In severely affected areas, more than 90% of people had respiratory symptoms and elderly individuals suffered a serious deterioration in overall health. (Kunii et al, 2002)

According to the Board for the Control of Environment Impacts in Palangkaraya, during the 2006 forest fires, in Palangka Raya, Central Kalimantan, air quality was rated as ‘unhealthy, very unhealthy or dangerous’ on 81% of days from September-November 2006. In October 2006, 30 of 31 days were ‘dangerous’ representing a clear health threat. Additionally, thick smoke impairs visibility, causing an increase in traffic accidents, and a general lack of public health service and the high cost of health insurance means that treatment is not typically received for smoke-related ailments.

In Singapore

According to the National Environment Agency, the highest Pollution Pollutant Standard Index (PSI) reading on record in Singapore is 401 (hazardous) in July 2013. Findings from the health impact surveillance during the 1997 haze period showed that there was a 30% increase in attendances for haze-related conditions. There were increases of 12% of upper respiratory tract illness, 19% asthma, and 26% rhinitis (Ministry of Health Statistics). During the same period there was also an increase in accident and emergency attendances for haze-related complaints. There was no significant increase in hospital admissions or in mortality.

Effects on the Economy

Estimates of the cost of uncontrolled fires to the Indonesian economy differ, but are invariably large. Varma (2003) analysed the costs and benefits of slash-and-burn to the Indonesian economy and concluded that during 1997-1998 Indonesia lost US$20.1 billion as a result of this practice. Other sources estimate the lost amount to US$6 billion to U$9 billion.

Economic losses in heavily-affected rural villages can amount to as much as 50% of township income. Haze from the fires can extend to Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand, shrouding them in smoke and affecting transport and economic activities for millions more people, resulting in billions more dollars of economic losses. Clearly, the economic losses associated with uncontrolled fires are contributing to poverty and restraining development in the region.

Effects on the Environment

Peat burning and consequent subsidence (Figure 2) – Dry peat smolders for long periods and burns down to the water table. When this happens, tree roots are exposed and both the peat and forest vegetation become unstable, resulting in peat subsidence, massive tree falls and the consequent loss of large areas of forest.

Figure 2a & 2b photographed by Susan Cheyne and Marie Hamard 

• Effects on flora – PSF trees are not adapted to fire (most have very thin
bark), so tree mortality post-fire is high. Although fires are generally low intensity, their slow spread rate means fire is in contact with trees for long periods, heating up the bark. Fire can kill 23-44% of trees with >10cm DBH (diameter at breast height) and 95% of stems with >1cm DBH (Harrison et al, 2008). They alter species composition in the area with little regeneration even 15 years after burning (Cochrane et al, 1999). Tree mortality in severely burnt areas of PSF is virtually 100%, as most trees fall once the supporting peat is burnt away (Figure 2b).

• Effects on fauna – Animals dependent on intact PSF will clearly be impacted directly by fire. Loss of habitat due to forest fires is one of the primary reasons of decreasing orangutan population. More information on the plight of the orangutans can be found in this link: http://orangutanfoundation.wildlifedirect.org/

Indirect effects are also likely. For example, gibbons sing less frequently in smoky conditions, which could interfere with territorial spacing and ultimately, reproduction (Chayne, 2007).

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