Last year’s haze was the worst in almost two decades


Indonesian forest fires that covered Southeast Asia with a smoky haze for weeks last year may have caused more than 100,000 premature deaths, according to new research.

A new study by Harvard and Columbia universities estimates that 91,600 deaths in Indonesia, 6,500 in Malaysia, and 2,200 in Singapore because of the smog.

The haze is an annual problem in Southeast Asia caused by forest fires in Indonesia that quickly and cheaply clear land for palm oil and pulpwood plantations.

The blazes occur mainly on Indonesia’s western Sumatra island and the Indonesian part of Borneo, however, monsoon winds typically blow the haze over Singapore and Malaysia.

But the fires last year, from July to October last year, were the worst in almost two decades and exacerbated by El Nino dry conditions. About 261,000 hectares of land burned and huge numbers suffered acute respiratory infections as a result of the haze.

The study should add pressure on Indonesia’s government to tackle the annual crisis. However, Indonesia’s health ministry said the study “makes no sense”.

Frank Murray, an associate professor of environment science at Australia’s Murdoch University, said the death estimates are not “precise health outcomes” but their overall scale should trigger intensified efforts to deal with the crisis. The study is a major contribution to addressing an international problem, he said.