Indonesian forest fires are putting nearly 10 million children at risk due to air pollution, the United Nations has warned.
The fires have been spewing toxic haze over south-east Asia in recent weeks, closing schools and airports, with people rushing to buy face masks and seek medical treatment for respiratory ailments.
Jakarta has deployed tens of thousands of personnel and water-bombing aircraft to tackle the slash-and-burn blazes that are set to clear agricultural land. The fires are an annual problem but this year is the worst since 2015 due to the dry weather.
On Tuesday, Greenpeace accused Indonesia of failing to impose serious penalties on pulpwood and palm oil firms that had large fires on their land between 2015 and 2018, with more fires on some of those farms also polluting the region’ this year.
“Many of the palm oil and pulp groups with the largest burned areas in their concessions have either not received any serious civil/administrative sanctions, or have had sanctions imposed that do not appear to fit with the level or frequency of burning,” the environmental action group said in its report.
Indonesia’s environment ministry said law enforcement had been “very strict” through administrative sanctions, including revoking licences and civil lawsuits.
Almost 10 million people under 18 – a quarter of them under five – live in the areas worst affected by fires on Indonesia’s Sumatra island and the country’s part of Borneo island, UN children’s agency Unicef said.
Small children are especially vulnerable due to undeveloped immune systems while babies born to mothers exposed to pollution during pregnancy may have problems such as low birth weight, the agency said.
“Poor air quality is a severe and growing challenge for Indonesia,” said Debora Comini from Unicef. “Every year, millions of children are breathing toxic air that threatens their health and causes them to miss school – resulting in lifelong physical and cognitive damage.”
Thousands of schools have been closed across Indonesia due to poor air quality, with millions of youngsters missing classes.
Pictures circulating on social media have shown the sky turning blood-red over hard-hit Jambi province, on Sumatra, in the middle of the day due to the haze.
Schools were forced to shut across Malaysia last week as smog from its neighbour clouded the skies, while Singapore was also shrouded in haze during the weekend’s Formula One motor race.
Air quality improved in Malaysia on Tuesday and was at “moderate” levels on an official index in most places with the skies looking largely clear, while the haze lifted from Singapore.
A regional forecasting centre said the number of “hotspots” – areas of intense heat detected by satellite which indicate a likely fire – had fallen sharply on Sumatra. Fires on the island are usually blamed for belching smog over Malaysia and Singapore.
There have been a series of wildfire outbreaks worldwide, from the Amazon to Australia, and scientists are increasingly worried about their impact on global warming.