It’s coming. Last week, researchers at the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) raised the probability of a strong El Niño event this year to 85 percent, a warning sign to governments around the world to begin preparing not only for extreme weather, but for the accompanying, potentially widespread, economic impacts. Southeast Asia, as a tropical region heavily dependent on monsoonal agriculture, stands to be particularly impacted.
“Even without El Niño fire is here in Indonesia every year,” said Herry Purnomo, a Scientist focusing on smallholder and community forestry at the Bogor, Indonesia Center for International Forestry Research. “We are afraid [this coming year] fires will be much much bigger.”
El Niño is a recurring, cyclical climate pattern, when waters off of the western coast of South American warm to higher-then-expected levels. This seemingly benign change has global repercussions.
Many in Southeast Asia will remember the last strong El Niño event, in 1997-98. Then, fires, fueled by a drier rainy reason in many parts of Indonesia, burned an estimated 5 million hectares, creating a haze that chocked much of the region. The fires were so widespread that they impacted solar radiation across the globe, and had a measurable impact on global temperatures.
“1997-1998 was a one-in-50-year type of event, unprecedentedly large,” said Robert Field, an Associate Research Scientist at Columbia University with expertise in Indonesian fires.
The dry weather also caused massive food shortages in Indonesia, causing the government to import 5.8 million tons of rice due to drought and fire-related crop failures – the largest quantity of rice ever imported by a single nation.
Is it the memory of that disaster, alongside the fact that numerous countries in Asia are seeing weak growth, that is leading to fears that this El Niño, if not properly prepared for, could have significant repercussions for the regional economy.
Preparing for a Preventable Disaster
Though some drought-related crop failures are likely unavoidable – already, farmers in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia are leaving fields and rice paddies unplanted due to lack of rainfall – fires, which impact both health and the economy, are entirely human-caused. They are not part of the natural cycle in tropical Southeast Asia; instead, they are fueled by the use of primitive forest-clearing techniques and degraded land, especially the draining of carbon rich, highly flammable peat lands.
“Severe fires are preventable, as they are all human caused,” said Field. “Once these fires start in peat, they are nearly impossible to put out.”
This is concerning for the region because, since 1998, deforestation has actually increased on Indonesian Borneo and Sumatra, especially in the province of Riau. This means there is a lot more burnable, degraded land. Thus if the impending El Niño is extreme, there may be even larger fires than in 1998.
“Deforestation and land-use change have accelerated in the past few years,” said Field, “the landscape has become more sensitive to fire.”
This necessitates action – the immediate cessation of the use of fires to clear forests, measures to open up canals and increase moisture levels on peat land swamps, and fire mitigation on other degraded lands.
Thankfully, this time unlike 1997-98, better global climate models and weather warnings systems are allowing time for Indonesia to prepare. Moreover, the region is in relatively better shape – the timing of the last major El Niño couldn’t have been worse, taking place alongside the Asian Financial Crisis. Then, a weak government with limited resources could do little to prevent or fight the fires raging across the archipelago. This time, though, the region is not only stronger economically, but there is much more information available to governments about the potential risks.
Moreover, a stronger ASEAN has allowed for protocols, such as the Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution that Indonesia finally ratified in 2014, to foster better cross border communication. Malaysia and Singapore, which cop much of the harmful haze from fires, have pledged to assist with firefighting, but according to Purnomo, that is not enough.
“Singapore and Malaysia complain a lot about [haze] but I don’t see any significant effort from these countries to work with Indonesia to solve the fire problem,” said Purnomo, adding that he would like to see more preventative investment from countries for efforts such as ecosystem restoration, or through schemes such as REDD+ to invest in deforestation prevention.
Moreover, the economic factors that allow burning to take place – chiefly, to grow profitable palm oil – may add incentives for some to let forest burn.
“I’m afraid that some people will enjoy El Niño, because after burning they can claim the land, and then plant acacia or, mostly, oil palm,” said Purnomo. Short-term measures may be too little, too late without longer-term, structural changes, including better mapping of land use, reductions of corruption, and enforcement of clearing licenses and best practices.
A Vision of the Future?
There may be impetus for long-term structural change. El Niño, though a cyclical event, may be a sign of things to come. Many of its connected potential extreme weather events are also the same events that forecasters predict will become more commonplace in the region as global temperatures rise with climate change. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment report, released last November, in most scenarios, Sumatra and Kalimantan are predicted to become drier over time.
“Any mitigation or prevention measures that are put in place in for El Niño episodes translate directly into what will you will do if these dry spells become more frequent,” said Field
Fittingly, right now, countries across Asia, including Indonesia, are preparing Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) ahead of the Paris United Nations Climate Conference taking place later this year. As one of the world’s largest carbon polluters – and now, the world’s top deforester – Indonesia will be paying a key role at the climate talks. The economic impacts of fires, if they do rage across the archipelago this year, will provide thrust for the country not only to better manage its forests, but push for global climate action so that it does not face devastating fires year after year.
Like climate change, El Niño events are hard to predict, and their effects can vary. Right now, all around the world, climate forecasters will be closely watching water temperatures in the Pacific Ocean. For Southeast Asia, however, preparations should be taking place no matter what the readings show – because whether it is El Niño, or climate change, without strong action, the only certainty is that Indonesia’s bio-diverse forests will burn.
Nithin Coca is a freelance writer and journalist who focuses on cultural, economic, and environmental issues in developing countries. Follow him on Twitter @excinit.