Wildfire prevention and risk reduction for children’s health and wellbeing

Photo by Aulia Erlangga/ CIFOR

By Johan Kieft (UNEP – Regional technical specialist) and Richard Wecker (UNICEF Indonesia – DRR specialist)

Large-scale conversion of natural peatland and forests to croplands on the islands Sumatra, Borneo (Kalimantan) and Papua has radically altered the lives and livelihoods of millions of Indonesians in recent decades. Slash-and-burn farming is a common technique of using fire to quickly clear land for new crops. Periodically, these fires spiral out of control and disperse smoke clouds – known as “haze”– across vast inhabited areas and international borders. Forest and peat fires affect both air quality and climate. These man-made disasters have devastating long-term effects on human health and wellbeing and the environment; tiny smoke particles endanger human lives, while greenhouse gases accelerate climate change.

Major fires in the annual dry-season of 1997 raised the problem of the “haze crisis.” Ever since, policymakers have been vexed with concerns for mitigating respiratory health risks and managing the impacts to the environment and wildlife. In June 2013, another haze episode in the Asian equatorial region led to the development of trans-boundary legal measures, including the ASEAN haze action-plan and charter on air pollution; a specialised meteorological centre was also established in Singapore to monitor and provide early warning of potential disaster.

In general, the drier the weather – the worse the haze. The 2015 El Nino event in Indonesia triggered what some have called “the worst environmental disaster of the 21st century.” Some 2.6 million hectares of land burned, causing economic losses of around USD 16 billion and emitting carbon at a rate of 15-20 million tons per day, at its peak – a figure exceeding the average daily emissions from all U.S. economic activity. The so-called “black carbon” and haze also reduced agricultural crop production by interrupting assimilation and photosynthesis of crops (Yongqiang et al., 2013).

Internationally, simulations have been developed to estimate the impact of the 2015 haze on health. One such exercise estimates that the 2015 forest fires will result in 110,000 premature deaths in the longer term, principally from respiratory health complications due to prolonged exposure to air pollution. The Air Quality Index (AQI) during the 2015 fires for Palangka Raya in East Kalimantan, one of the worst-affected population centers, reached more than 3000 (below) – some 10 times the “hazardous” threshold set by the National Bureau of Meteorology, Climatology And Geophysics (BMKG).

Air quality in Palangkaraya, October 2015.

Peat smoke is especially toxic, as it contains large amounts of hydrogen cyanide – about 6 grams emitted for each kilogram of peat burned (Stockwell et al., 2016). It is worth noting that surgical (disposable) face masks are inadequate protection for heavy particulate matter and that even low levels of pollution from traditional crop-burning can harm the health of infants (Rangel et al., 2016).

Though these modeling methods are well founded, their accuracy can be improved by referring to Indonesian epidemiological cohorts to sharpen exposure sensitivity and by verifying data sources. Meanwhile, the Government of Indonesia officially declared 10 deaths with the full burden of mortality and morbidity to be confirmed, while over 40 million people are said to be directly impacted by the haze.

Concerns have also been raised regarding additional absences due to school closures – impacting approximately 5 million students during the 2015 haze crisis (World Bank, 2016). Lower school attendance as a result of repeated illnesses and closures may not only negatively affect students’ academic performance and results, but also their motivation to pursue further studies. In this connection, research indicates that excessive school absence disrupts learning and is a strong predictor of premature school dropout – a critical consideration as the haze crises intensify (Moonie et al., 2006).

In the aftermath of the 2015 fires, the President of Indonesia declared a moratorium on activities that could damage peatlands, and the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) declared a fatwa on the use of fires for land clearing. Despite significant challenges, the Government of Indonesia, with the support of the international community, has devoted substantive resources to fire-fighting and initiated a law enforcement crackdown on forest burners. The year 2016, indeed, saw fewer incidents of fire or “hotspots”; however, this is generally attributable to the saving grace of a wetter-than-average dry season.

One of the key lessons learned is that suppressing fires on drained deep tropical peatlands is extremely difficult, ineffective, and costly, both in terms of the health of those fighting the fires as well as the financial costs. The total economic loss of the fires is already in excess of USD$15 billion (Prof. Purnomo, 2015), which does not include indirect economic losses such as the loss of biodiversity and the irreversible, long-term health impacts.

To revert these trends and avoid related impacts, peatland and peat forest restoration action is critical. UN Environment, as part of the UN-REDD Programme, is working to support the government of Indonesia to take the necessary action. One example is the support to the Fire Risk System, which is used to inform the Indonesian stakeholders so they can take early and better targeted action on fire suppression, thus reducing vulnerability to fire. A clear example of action was a meeting convened by UN Environment with Indonesia’s Peatland Restoration Agency to develop an action plan for the 2017 fire season by disseminating fire early warning information, thus enabling better informed action, reduced fire risks and consequent GHG emissions, and most importantly, less suffering for children.

Long-term paradigm shifts need to be initiated including moving toward the sustainable management of peat lands. In conjunction with fire-fighting efforts, there is an urgent need for a comprehensive national fire-fighting strategy and evidence-based actions at all levels of government, drawing from the country’s own experience as well as international experiences in forest fire prevention.

Targeted ecological restoration, meanwhile, in particular large-scale rewetting of degraded peat and reforestation of hydrologically restored peatlands, can lessen the frequency and severity of fires, improve air quality, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and enable Indonesia to make substantial progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 – especially if this supported by flanking fiscal reform policies that enable large scale transition to alternative crops. There are also REDD+ based finance options for which the Government of Indonesia is laying the foundations, as part of the establishment of economic environmental instruments as mandated under Law No. 32/2008, in combination with a sound legal framework.

UN Environment and UNICEF Indonesia have partnered with Pulse Lab Jakarta to develop innovative solutions to stop the fires, reduce the risks of exposure to haze, and address the lifelong disadvantages for children caused by school disruption in chronically affected communities. The collaboration aims to help the Indonesian government strengthen policies for improving peat land management, protect vulnerable populations and reduce the negative impact of these fires on key Sustainable Development Goals.

Partners have developed advanced tools in consultation with the Government of Indonesia for forecasting fire-prone areas (the ‘Fire Risk System’ developed by UN Environment/IPB University) as well as real-time analysis of social media, news and public information for tracking human response to fires and air pollution (the ‘Haze Gazer’ developed by Pulse Lab Jakarta). These tools have the potential for use by all levels of government and the community.

To better understand the drivers and health consequences of the annual haze crisis, UNICEF commissioned research on behavioural dimensions, thus placing affected people at the heart of the study. This research, as well as a health impact study and policy analysis with a focus on young children, will be presented to the public and decision-makers in August of 2017.

A child in Jambi made a body map. Yellow dots indicate where they felt pain during times of severe haze. Reality Check Approach and UNICEF, 2016.

In line with the research, human-centred design concepts have also been utilized to develop practical solutions (prototypes) for families and service providers in haze-affected areas. One of the prototypes involves proposals for shifting school schedules and preparing for the use of a haze-proof classroom in a community to limit children’s exposure to and from their usual school building. This will be accompanied by guidance on a low-cost ‘haze emergency kit’ to reduce exposure to ambient and indoor pollution, including appropriate masks, locally-produced air purifiers, and measures for air infiltration and ventilation.

Another prototype involves community-based and personal air quality monitoring. Sensors positioned in locations such as homes, schools, health centres and mosques will better map exposure and communicate risk to members of the community. This information can shape public health messaging targeting vulnerable groups and inform standard operating procedures (SOPs) to help communities formulate contingency plans for when air quality approaches hazardous levels.

Partners are currently testing such prototypes and plan to work with adolescents and young people to contextualize them ahead of the 2017 fire season. Government and a wide variety of stakeholders including the private sector and donors play a critical role in supporting the conversion of these prototypes into standardised and scalable risk reduction measures.

The challenge of mitigating haze’s impacts requires assertive action and long-term commitment. Aside from fighting fires through enforcing existing laws and robust forest protection measures, there are opportunities for the Government of Indonesia to lead in research (longitudinal studies) on the scale of

human impact to date, and to ensure the continuous monitoring of health and wellbeing, especially among children. Government can bring the insights generated by the partnership into the realm of policy, enacting measures to better protect a child’s right to health and education in the age of haze.


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