The first of June marks the beginning of Indonesia’s dry season and with it, the seasonal fires that have been responsible for a debilitating haze across South-East Asia in the past. The dry season in 2018 saw an upsurge in the number of fires across the Indonesian archipelago, threatening the record streak of dry seasons with a low fire count.
This year’s dry season will determine whether the Indonesian Government can continue its streak of record-low fire counts since MODIS C6 began recording data in 2000. As seen in Figure 1, following the 2015 South-East Asian haze crisis, each of the following dry seasons saw fire levels drop dramatically. Those record lows coincided with increased efforts from the Indonesian government to restore dried out and degraded peatlands and improve laws and regulations to dissuade the use of the farming practices responsible for the fires. As noted in a previous Strategic Weekly Analysis, however, there is a strong correlation between rainfall during the dry season (within Riau, West Kalimantan and Central Kalimantan, where most fires occur) and the severity of that year’s fire season. The past three years have seen, on average, higher levels of rainfall, which has probably contributed to the low fire counts for those years.
While the dry season has only just begun, there are some concerns that this year could see considerably more haze than the previous three years. According to a recent haze outlook report by the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA), the risk of a transboundary haze event, similar to 1997 and 2015, is moderately-likely for this year. That is primarily due to weak El Niño weather conditions that are expected to continue into the third quarter of this year. Despite those expected conditions, Indonesian officials have assured their neighbours that they will bring the haze under control. In December 2018, Nazir Foead, chief of Indonesia’s Peatland Restoration Agency, told the Straits Times that ‘We can handle this… We cannot say that there will not be fires, but there will be fewer incidents, and they will be put out much quicker’.
It is unclear whether the current efforts from the Indonesian Government will be enough during the El Niño conditions. In early March, due to those dryer conditions, there was a flare up of fires, primarily in the Riau province in Sumatra. Compared to previous years, that was the largest recorded spike in fires during the wet season since 2016, when the Indonesian government introduced stronger measures to suppress those peatland fires.
According to some commentators, the recent flare-up shows that the government is still focussed on a reactive approach to the issue; only responding to fires after they’ve broken out. If that is the case, the Indonesian Government risks becoming overwhelmed this fire season and may struggle to prevent the haze from reaching across the archipelago to its neighbours. After being congratulated by regional governments for its efforts to reduce the haze in previous years, Indonesia could again face diplomatic pressure to step up its efforts.
The upcoming dry season, therefore, with its expected, albeit weak, El Niño conditions, will be the real test of whether the efforts by the Indonesian Government will be enough to suppress the fires.