Air Pollution in Southeast Asia



The Southeast Asian Haze Problem

Generally, air pollution appears due to industrial activities, factory chimneys and the traffic and burning in private households in cities and urbanized areas. That does a great harm to the atmosphere and the health of man and animals. In Southeast Asia there is another major source of air pollution which is topping the rest by far: the burning of the tropical rainforests, other forests, bushland, grassland, rice straw, the burning of rubbish in a larger scale and countless garden fires.

Fire Clearing

'Fireclearing in the Areng Valley' by Asienreisender

A plot after slash-and-burn. Small peasants cleared part of the forest to gain acreage. However, the sensitive top soil layer will be washed out soon, in the next rainy season; the remaining sublayer is not fertile and agriculture is no more possible here after two, three years. The peasants will move forward and burn down another spot to continue the same procedure. Image by Asienreisender, Areng Valley, Cardamom Mountains, 3/2016

Every year and all around the year the forests are burning in this world region, in the rythm of the monsoon cycle. In the winter months, when the climate is mostly dry, the forests in mountainous north Thailand, north Laos, Burma/Myanmar, north Vietnam and Yunnan (south China) are set on fire. In this long time of the year, roughly from November to April/May, the air quality impairs and get's increasingly smoky. The smog is blocking the sun and tinting the light of the day into a spooky, all-day lasting dusk/dawn atmosphere. The dominant colours of the nature are brownish-yellow, the sun remains reddish even at noon, for there are so many soot particles in the air that the sunlight does not come fully through anymore. This scenario worsens until the rainy season brings relief from May on.

In the other half of the year, in reverse, the forests of Indonesia and Malaysia fall victim to huge fires, mostly committed by arsonists who speculate on the cleared land. These two countries produce 85% of the world's palm oil, and the demand for this product is still growing. In the 'fire season' of 2015 there were more than 100,000 fires counted in Sumatra and Borneo. The smog there is blown then over the Malay Peninsula, affecting Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and the south of Thailand still heavily. In autum 2006 I personally witnessed the smoke in the air over a place so far north as Prachuap Khiri Khan. Every year again and again the same procedure appears like a ritual: the arsonists in Indonesia are blamed, the Indonesian government is blamed with them and promises improvement for next year. Next year, though, it's all repeating, often in a larger scale. The fires in the years 1997, 2013 and 2015 were particularly bad.

'Fire Clearing in Ou Soum' by Asienreisender

Pioneers at the frontier. Behind this plot virgin tropical rainforest grows since millions of years. Here, in the foreground, it's slashed and burned, and probably will be planted with somewhat so ordinary like bananas for sale. Image by Asienreisender, Ou Soum, Cardamom Mountains, 2/2016

Cambodia is the country with the highest deforestation rate worldwide in the last decades. All the lowland forests are already chopped and burned down. They got replaced by sugar plantations, rubber plantations, palmoil plantations or other cash crops like cassava or cashew nut. The last remaining forests of the country are concentrated in the Cardamom Mountains. Here is the burning going on in full scale. Travelling the Cardamom Mountains, one sees fires everywhere where people are and where is road access into the nature. More roads, rapidly expanding settlements and plantations (here often banana plantations and teak) are gorging into the last untouched tropical rainforests of the country. The forests in the hilly, eastern provinces Ratanakiri and Mondulkiri have already fallen victim to grand-style fireclearing.


Heavy Air Pollution in the
Greater Golden Triangle

Like every year in the second half of the dry season, the air quality in the north of Laos, north of Thailand, south China (Yunnan) and parts of Burma is going very bad. That's above all due to countless large forest fires, but additionally also due to burning rice straw on the fields, the burning of litter in private gardens or done by the local authorities on open waste disposal sites without any filtering, traffic, and the long lasting lack of rain. Still a majority of drivers let the engines of their cars, busses, trucks etc. run while not driving, e.g. before starting or when waiting at a petrol station or anywhere else. That's useless, expensive, harmfull and nevertheless a common mentality.

Asienreisender - A Red Sun

From February to May the sun looks red all day as if it were sunset, due to the heavy air pollution. The sky is blurry and never blue. Image: Asienreisender, Chiang Khong, 2012

Part of the firemaking habit is old and originally a cultural technique. In the dry season it's partially recommendable to burn dry plant material under control to prevent uncontrolled (bush- and forest) fires who could otherwise break out uncontrolled. Slash-and-burn practices have a long tradition in Southeast Asia. It was ever used by nomadic tribes. But in the dimensions as nowadays it's a serious problem. One who hasn't seen it couldn't imagine how bad the air is in the region around the Golden Triangle. Many people suffer a serious impact on their health and need medical care. The sight reaches not far, landscapes disappear in the smoke like in fog. Worst was the situation in March 2006, when the sight was already impaired within a range of less than two meters.

Asienreisender - Stop Burning the Forest

A painting found in a school in north Thailand. Image by Asienreisender, 2012

In Thailand there are made trials to generate artificial rain by spreading out certain chemicals by airplanes. The rain shall clean the air and stop some fires - but it is futile. The situation does not improve despite to these efforts.

Deforestation is a huge problem not only in Laos and Burma / Myanmar and Thailand with their large industries for wood, but in the whole of Southeast Asia. Huge parts of forests burn every year in the dry seasons to give space for plantation monocultures. Burning is the cheapest, quickest and easiest way to remove bush, forest and jungle and clear the area for other, whatever purposes.

Air Pollution in north Laos

Being in the north of Laos in the time from mid February to the start of the rainy season means suffering heavy air pollution.


Bush Fires on a Mekong Island by Asienreisender

A bushfire on an island on the Mekong River between Houayxai and Chiang Khong. Peasants chase the animals out of the bushes to hunt them. Image by Asienreisender, 2012

Particularly from March on the smog is so dense, that the sight is partially not clear of a distance of a few meters already. Landscapes disappear behind a wall of smoke. That's due to heavy slash and burn activities committed by the peasants all around in the area, including north Thailand, bigger parts of south China and Burma / Myanmar. The eyes might burn, the nose dries out, some people get a headache and the general well-being is affected; the whole surroundings look pretty apocalyptic. Even some locals confess that there is a problem, but the vast majority of the locals here don't take it serious and continue burning forest, bushes, harvested rice fields and litter of all kind, including plastic. In 2011 I saw a burning lorry tyre in a neighbourhood in Vang Vieng, a huge pillar of black smog rising up and creeping all around in the neigbouring gardens and houses, where the children played and people were around, where food was displayed and laundry on the clothesline.

The situation is worsened due to the massive traffic increase. In Luang Prabang's protected old part of town there is too much traffic, but outside this small place the traffic is meanwhile murderous. Masses of mostly brandnew motorbikes and above all big pickups like in Thailand are on the roads. The smog they emit and all the dirty dust they make up have another heavy impact on the air quality.

Smog over the Mekong River at Luang Prabang

The Mekong River in smog and air pollution at Luang Prabang by Asienreisender

The Mekong River at Luang Prabang. The other side is not clearly to see, due to heavy air pollution. Eyes and nose are burning, walking is no good thing to do. Image by Asienreisender, 2013

I personally like walking much, also over longer distances, let's say five to ten kilometers, sometimes more. That is basically very fine and healthy, but when there is no alternative than to walk along roads with heavy traffic in the dense smog it's no more healthy; besides it's very dangerous for there is nowhere a decent sidewalk and all the vehicles, small and big, pass by closely. Additionally the traffic is extremely noisy, what is another source of heavy pollution.

The verymost people of Southeast Asia have no consciousness concerning a healthy environment or personal health care. No brain, no pain, one might think, but they do suffer and they do get sick. It's merely ignorance and stupidity. Additionally in these cultures it's not accepted to criticize other people for their behaviour. One can not complain to wrongdoers.

By the way: Southeast Asians only walk if there is really no possibility to drive. They would never walk a step if they can avoid it. Stupid white man is not much better. If I remember correct, the last time I met people walking some twelve, fifteen kilometers, that was nine month ago a Czech couple in the Tengger National Park around Mount Bromo.

Between Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng

The road between Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng and vice versa, that's about 250km through the mountains, is insofar remarkable as it leads through a huge mountain scenery where few settlements are. The road is not the worst, but narrow, mostly serpentines and shows many potholes and parts who are very bad or under construction.

Also here the forests burn every year in the dry season from February to May. The smog in the air is very strong. Everywhere to the right and the left are black slopes left as the result of the slash-and-burn activities or, mor often, arson. The local people burn anything, including plastic waste, although there is still too much litter around the hamlets one is passing by. It is also known that international investors, who are on the search for land they can use for plantations, let burn great parts of forests to get the land cleared.

The sight, in other parts of the year clear and far reaching over a really impressing green mountain scenery in which not a trace of human impact is to see (with the bare eye, in fact there are many impacts) is now short and most of the mountains disappear behind the smoke like in dense fog.


Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia

The transboundary haze problem in Southeast Asia can be followed back to 1972, when it was first recorded. It got worse in the 1980s and reached a desastrous peak first time in the notorious 1997 Southeast Asian haze. Usually, when the word is of the Southeast Asian haze, the annual smog from the thousands of fires in Indonesia are meaned. Nowhere is the problem larger than in Indonesia.

The Southeast Asian Haze 1997

Southeast Asian Haze 1997

The satellite image shows the smoke (white) and tropospheric ozone smog (red, yellow and green) pollution, caused by the months-long fires on Sumatra. Image by NASA, Oct. 22nd 1997. The file is in the public domain.

Every year in the dry season are huge areas of tropical rainforest on fire, mostly in Sumatra and Borneo (Kalimantan). The reason for these fires are almost exclusively humans. The rainforests themselve have a low risk to fires, because they are a humid habitat also in dry season, a buffer for humidity. The reason why they burn frequently is arson, in combination with unusual draughts due to global warming (e.g. the El Nino effect in 2015). The reason behind the reason is the greed for profit, it's land grabbing and fireclearing done by large, international companies. Indonesia is the world's largest producer of palmoil. The destroyed rainforests give space for large-scale palmoil plantations.

According to the Indonesian NGO Walhi, are Sinar Mas and Wilmar Internationational the corporations who are most responsible for the latest fires. Wilmar International supplies Unilever with palmoil. Unilever falsely claims to use 100% sustainable palmoil.

Source: Watch Indonesia!, 2016.

Other reasons for the fires are fireclearing by people due to the massive population pressure. Urbanization is then creeping into the formerly forested areas. Fire is by distance the cheapest way to clear land. Clearing land with machines and chemicals would cost estimated 200 US$ per hectare; by arson it's not exceeding 5 US$.

The highest CO2 emission and generally contribution to the haze cause burned peat swamp forests. A peatland is a habitate in which organic plant materials have been accumulated over thousands of years under water. When the peat grew for, let's say, ten thousand years, it can be a layer as deep as 20m. When peatland get's drained, it's drying out and get's vulnerable to fire, respectively smoldering.

Estimated almost 14% of Indonesia's land consists of peatland; that is a huge amount of 265,000km2. Malaysia has another 27,000km2 peatland. These habitats are disappearing rapidly. Land transformation changed about 30% of it into urbanized regions, agriculture or forestry. Another 30% has been logged or degraded. All that happened within the last roughly 25 years and is increasingly ongoing.

If peatlands get cleared by machines, the soil is practically unusuable because it's nutrient poor and contains acids. Pests like mosquitoes and plant diseases who flourish in the remaining habitat have to be neutralized. That can be done chemically by applying limestone to lift the pH value, to use fertilizers and chemical pesticides. No good way, of course. Worse even is the cheap alternative: fire. The ashes regulate the pH, fertilize, and the pest get's killed. However, the problem is an extremely high CO2 emission and moreover a high methane emission, which if 25 times worse concerning global warming than CO2 is. And the haze is desastrous.

In fewer cases fires, as it appears sometimes naturally, are accidentally. In other cases fires caused by people run out of control.

The ASEAN Agreement on Haze Pollution

The annual haze hits not only Indonesia itself, but also the neighouring countries Singapore and Malaysia very much. Further affected are Brunei, Thailand and partially the Philippines. From Singapore and Malaysia, where the official air pollution limits are exceeded by a multitude, every year severe protests are outspoken, and the Indonesian government always promises improvement and persecution of the offenders. All this talking remains much ado about nothing.

In 2002 already the ASEAN members came together to face the problem on a diplomatic level. The result was the 'ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution'. It's an international environmental treaty which aims to prevent and mitigate the haze pollution.

However, there are two major problems coming with the agreement. The first is, that Indonesia, the largest polluting country, didn't ratify the treaty. Ooops. The second problem is that the treaty does not imply any serious sanctions against one of the member countries which does infringe the agreement. In other words: the agreement is a lame duck.

How comes, that there is still, after decades of this growing problem, no solution for it?

Well, as so often in such cases, there is a strong lobby working against a reasonable solution. And this lobby is international. Powerfull, rich companies like Singapore's Wilmar International and Malaysia's Sime Darby and IOI do control almost 70% of the total palmoil production in Indonesia. They are global players in the international palmoil industry, and they have good connections to governments. Even when they don't promote fireclearing in their home countries, they would accept or practice it in Indonesia.

The big producers in Indonesia therefore are usually tightly bound to mother companies in Singapore and Malaysia. They have connections to the Indonesian administrations and know to play the game in the corrupt patronage system there. Besides, palmoil is a strategic sector for Indonesia's national economy. Why should the Indonesian government harm it? On the very contrary has the Indonesian government decided to enhance the palmoil share in the country's petrol up to 100%. Formerly, Indonesia was an OPEC country, exporting raw oil; it changed to an oil importing country. It would be of advantage for the Indonesian economy to substitute the expensive, imported oil with the self-produced plantation oil.

The small producers in Indonesia use, as they did at all times, the traditional and cheap slash-and-burn method to gain plantation acreage. They sell their production to the large palmoil companies. These smaller players are many, fragmented, and difficult to control.

See: The 'Burning' Problem of Air Pollution in Southeast Asia,


Haze in the Cardamom Mountains

A similar situation as in the northern parts of Southeast Asia happens every year also in the Cardamom Mountains. The fires here usually don't find their way into the international news like those in Indonesia. In fact, they don't even find their way into the national news of Cambodia. Still, travelling the Cardamom Mountains in early 2016, I found the last remaining tropical rainforests of Cambodia everywhere where people can go, on fire. It looks as if forests and the nature were mankinds worst enemy. Without going into more details here, the reasons are quite similar like in the two other areas. It's slash-and-burn by small farmers who consume new land for settlements and farming. It's also for the implementation of plantations for bananas (often seen in the Cardamoms), teak plantations for the paper and furniture industries and other plantations, including rubber plantations.

For more details visit:
The Cardamom Mountains under Threat
The Areng Valley
Veal Veng
Ou Soum


The Consequences...

The most apparent impact of fires is the destruction of tropical rainforests and other natural habitats. A lot of animals and plants get killed, habitat loss leads more and more to the extinction of a lot of species.

The smog, the CO2 and methane enhance the ongoing climate change. This climate change happens globally as global warming, and locally as a change of the micro climate. When the green layer is removed, one can personally feel the temperature rising. Particularly the loss of top layer soil of tropical rainforests leaves behind a nutrient poor sublayer, often sandy, where only few plants can grow on. Often parts of the ground remains bare. The sun now get's no more absorbed by green leaves but reflects directly back from the ground into the atmosphere. The CO2 enriched atmosphere saves more warmth than before. The ground itself get's hot and heats the surroundings up. Often, the landscapes after deforestation are becoming half-deserts.

'Fireflames' by Asienreisender

That's how the future looks: more of the same.

Many local people, who live since eons from the natural riches of the forests, what is edible plants, animals, fresh water and much more, loose their basic sources. Many people also simply loose their land due to land grabbing and deforestation. Wave of refugees move then to other places or countries, for they simply can not live anymore in their ancestral places - for them life has been turned into a mere struggle for survival.

The haze means often a very strong impairment of the sight. The landscapes look apocalyptic, the sunlight doesn't get as strong as usually. Often, in the last weeks of the dry season, the sight is reduced to a few meters.

The health impact on people must be enormous. The short-term health suffers anyway: dry cough at day- and nighttime, eye-irritations, sneezing, running nose, a dry throat, skin-irritations, a higher sensibility to allergies and much more. Some people have a higher tolerance towards pollution than others. More effects are asthma, chronic lung diseases, dizziness, a lower stress tolerance, general unwell-being, reduced capabilities, headaches, cancer and accidents. Reportedly, children lost their lifes on the way to school in Borneo.

Generally spoken, the weakest and most vulnerable suffer most - that's babies, old people and such who suffer already under diseases or handicaps.

Additionally, the haze causes irritations and disruptions in people's all-day-lifes, for example when school is cancelled, flights are cancelled or the transport system is generally impaired. Industrial capacities can be reduced as crop productivity, evacuations may happen. The so beloved travelling milk cows (tourists) don't come and foreign investors loose conficende into a location.

Globally die every year 2.1 million people a premature dead due to poor air quality, means due to dust, soot and smoke. East Asia is the top hotspot for this kind of premature mortality. Southeast Asia is ranked third most dangerous, counting anually 150,000 deaths caused by air pollution and additionally 30,000 deaths caused by ozone pollution. Ground level ozone is caused by a chemical reaction of oxides of nitrogen and volatile organic compounds under the effect of sunlight.

See: Global premature mortality due to anthropogenic outdoor air pollution
and the contribution of past climate change
US Environmental Protection Agency, NASA, and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

The health impact on and irritation of animals is always a point which is neglected in this concern. In Borneo, eyewitnesses saw birds falling from the sky, and panicking orangutans leave the burning forests, sometimes with their babies, on the (futile) search for a safe refuge. These animals are then the easy prey for local poachers.

Asienreisender Up to the top!

Published on February 28th, 2012

Air Pollution

Last update on April 17th, 2016