Friday, May 29, 2009

Human role in Indonesian polluting forest fires

By: Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research

The large forest fires that sweep through Indonesia in dry periods are not only the result of severe drought. A team of researchers, including Veni grant winner Guido van der Werf, has analysed the density of smog during forest fires. They have now established that the intensity of the forest fires is directly linked to population density and land use. Nature Geoscience published the results of the research on 22 February.

The biggest problem of the fires in Indonesia is not the fire itself but the poisonous smoke released. Due to this smoke, the number of people killed by fires in Indonesia is probably many times higher than that in Australia this year. Furthermore, the smog also causes severe damage to the environment. Knowledge about the causes of these fires is essential for improved predictions of major fire years.

Where there's smoke...

The researchers used the thick smoke produced by the Indonesian fires to analyse the forest fires. Due to a lack of good satellite images, little is known about fires that took place before the 1990s. The researchers solved this problem by using other data recorded daily during the past fifty years, namely the visibility observations and meteorological data from airports.

One of the most interesting results from the study was that low rainfall in Sumatra has been resulting in fires since at least 1960, while in Kalimantan this has only been the case since 1980. Kalimantan was fairly resistant to dry periods up until 1980, but since then Kalimantan has become far more prone to fires prone during drought years. The population of Sumatra grew rapidly in the 1960s. However, a comparable increase in the population was not seen in Kalimantan until the 1980s.

The rising population on Kalimantan was accompanied by a change in land use from small-scale subsistence agriculture to large-scale industrial agriculture and agroforestry. In order to support this change, large areas of peatlands were drained and deforestation took place on a grand scale. These changes in land use and population density made Kalimantan far more fire prone. Although the enormous influence of this man-made change was already suspected, this is the first time that these claims have been substantiated by reliable data.

Climate change

In addition to the major human influences, the researchers also analysed the influence of two meteorological phenomena. The influence of El Nino on the amount of rainfall was already known, but the Indian Ocean Dipole, that exerts a major influence on the water surface temperature, appeared to be an equally important factor.

Although severe drought provides the conditions conducive for forest fires, it is often humans who are actually responsible. Many of the fires are deliberately started to free up land for agriculture. The sustained burning of biomass not only releases the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and methane but also large quantities of carbon monoxide and particulate matter. Consequently, during major fire years the air quality in Indonesia is many times worse than that of the most polluted cities of the world. Moreover, the polluted air also affects people living in neighbouring areas.

Researcher Guido van der Werf from the VU University Amsterdam carried out his research in collaboration with Robert Field and Samuel Shen. In 2008, Van der Werf was awarded NWO's prestigious Vening Meinesz prize for the most promising young researcher in the earth sciences.


Forest Fires in Sumatra

Up to Friday, May 29, 2009, sixty three hot spot were identified in Sumatra island. Most of them were occurred in Riau, Bengkulu, South Sumatra and Jambi province. The authority said that the number had been decreasing, two days before they identify as much as 350 hot spot. The smoke reduce the viewing distance, but haven't reach the limit to affect air traffic.

The islands of Sumatra and Borneo have been repeatedly affected by forest fires. As it happened in 1997 and 2004 when forest fires on Indonesian islands disrupted flights at the Sumatran city of Pekanbaru and blanketed neighboring Singapore and Malaysia with smog for months.

Some of the fires are caused by lightning strikes, but many have been blamed local farmer and plantation firm practice burning off of farm land and forest clearance. Despite a government ban on burning forests for land, the practice has continued unabated.

Picture : An aerial view of a forest fire in Dumai in Indonesia's Riau province February 26, 2008 (Source : Daylife)

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Preparing for the Worst, Hoping for the Best

by: Titania Veda (the Jakarta Globe)

After the tsunami hit Aceh, Padang and the rest of West Sumatra were left unscathed, but the news induced great trauma in the people,” said Patra Rina Dewi, executive director of the Tsunami Alert Community (Kogami), a local nongovernmental organization.

The Dec. 26, 2004, Indian Ocean tsunami was the worst the world had seen in around 600 years, and Padang’s neighbor, Aceh, lost 170,000 people to the waves, making it the worst-hit area in the world. Just four months later, a 6.7-magnitude earthquake hit Padang, sending thousands of residents fleeing inland in fear of another tsunami. “Our first priority became to assuage the fears of the people,” Patra said. “They were scared because there was no information about when they had to run or what action they should take.”

Established in July 2005, Kogami has been working to instill a culture of disaster preparedness among Padang’s residents. Training people is a key component of its efforts. To achieve its aim — to reduce risks by strengthening capacity and decreasing vulnerability — Kogami has set up a number of programs, including educational programs for school students, educational material development, capacity building, disaster mitigation and surveys and assessments.

The organization includes 12 permanent staff members, 200 facilitators, who are all local volunteers, and an international team of geologists from Indonesia, Japan, Germany and the United States. “At the beginning, our knowledge about disasters was zero,” Patra said. “None of us had a background in disaster training. We came from engineering, farming and agricultural backgrounds.”

A San Francisco-based NGO called the SurfZone Relief Operation, which was already providing aid to Sumatra, wanted to set up an educational program for disaster preparedness. The local volunteers involved with SurfZone established Kogami.

Kogami chose to focus on Padang when it launched because the city has the largest population of people at risk of a major tsunami. Out of Padang’s 750,000 residents, 400,000 live or work by the sea, Patra said. Other areas surrounding the city that are under threat are the West Sumatra districts of Pesisir Selatan, Agam, West Pasaman, Padang Pariaman, the city of Pariaman and the Mentawai Islands. This year, Kogami has begun work with the people of Pesisir Selatan and Padang Pariaman, with support from the Mercy Corps.

At first, the organization had a difficult time connecting with the local community and government. “They weren’t ready to hear the word tsunami,” Patra said. “The government said we were preventing investors and tourists from coming here.” But Patra said doing nothing about the situation would in fact turn investors away.

Since 2005, a total of 61 schools have received trained for dealing with natural disasters. Starting from the first grade, children are taught how to prepare for earthquakes and tsunamis and what to do should they hit the region. “They have to know where it is safe to place the teacher’s desk, if it’s safe to place desks next to windows. They have to present a plan to the class,” Patra said.

In January 2009, a trial program to integrate disaster preparation into the curriculum began in 12 Padang schools. Education workshops are also held in villages to ensure a system is in place and that everyone has the necessary knowledge of disaster planning and evacuation strategies. Among their various activities, Kogami has mapped out evacuation routes. High-risk areas are zoned red, while low-risk areas are zoned yellow. “People can identify which the closest evacuation route is for them based on sector maps of the city,” Patra said.

Kogami has installed a preventive-measures group in each threat zone. The groups are made up of locals, who focus on disaster and emergency preparation in the red zones and the establishment of “3x24” emergency shelters in yellow zones. “We predict that help won’t come for times 24 hours and that local resources will have to be able to shelter casualties for that amount of time,” Patra said. Religious beliefs are often a challenge to Kogami. Patra said the local mind-set was often, “If Allah thinks we’re meant to die, we shall die.” Kogami is attempting to change this perception. “We need to break down this mentality because we need to try our best first, and then leave it to God.”

Note: a re-post from an article publish in the Jakarta Globe on May10, 2009
Image source: the Jakarta Globe