Sunday, April 26

A Tree Grows in Sumatra: beyond the Shoot Yourself in the Foot model of global trade


April 11, 2014, Financial Times:  
Yet in spite of Singapore’s progress towards self-sufficiency in water, it remains dependent on Malaysia. A reminder of that dependency came only last month when reports surfaced in the Malaysian media that Kuala Lumpur might be considering charging its neighbour more for the water it supplies. That prompted Singapore’s foreign minister to remind the Singapore parliament that “neither party can unilaterally change any of the terms of the 1962 water agreement”.


Patch of peat forest habitat isolated in a landscape cleared for an industrial plantation in Indonesia's Riau Province on the island of Sumatra. Photo: Rhett A. Butler, Founder, Monga Bay

Note that the following report is from 2014.  And while the reporter is very thorough about informing Bloomberg readers on the eimportance of industrial palm agriculture for Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia economies, for now I'm skipping those several paragraphs to highlight only certain parts in her extensive report.  I'm also highlighting certain passages in the following two reports:
“February is the driest month for Singapore. What’s not normal is the length of the dry spell.”

by Jasmine Ng in Singapore
February 28, 2014
Bloomberg Business

The drought parching Singapore and swaths of Malaysia and Indonesia threatens to raise food prices, slow economic growth and disrupt water supply in the region, home to the world’s oldest tropical rain forests.

Areas around Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital, started water rationing this month. Neighboring Singapore, which had a record 27 days without rain from Jan. 13, is preparing for the dry spell to persist into the first half of March. In Indonesia’s Riau province, officials declared a state of emergency as forest fires blanketed the region in haze.
Southeast Asia is under the influence of the Northeast Monsoon, which brings dry and stable air from the South China Sea and lessens the likelihood of rainfall, said Winston Chow, an assistant professor of geography at the National University of Singapore.

“February is the driest month for Singapore,” Chow said. “What’s not normal is the length of the dry spell.”

The countries join Australia, Brazil, Kosovo and parts of Thailand and the U.S. as among those battling drought.[...]

[Pundita aside: Kosovo had a drought last year?  Isn't Kosovo in Europe? I must read Bloomberg Business more often] 

In Malaysia, the government is preparing funding to help Selangor state nationalize water assets in the region surrounding the capital. Water rationing began in parts of Selangor this week after the drought drained reservoirs, and will extend to 431,617 households, the Star reported on its website, citing Malaysia’s water services commission.

“The supply of raw water in Selangor state is in a critical condition,” Khalid Ibrahim, the chief minister of Selangor state, said in a faxed statement on Feb. 24. “The water levels at a few dams have been shrinking to reach an alarming stage.”

Malaysia supplies water to Singapore, which consumes about 480 million U.S. gallons a day. The nation gets about 60 percent of its water from the Malaysian state of Johor and draws on local reservoirs and streams, its national water agency said.

Recycling Wastewater

Singapore plans to triple its wastewater recycling and increase desalination capacity almost tenfold to meet as much as 80 percent of water demand in 2060, according to the agency’s report. The push to develop the industry has drawn businesses including General Electric Co. and Siemens AG to invest, and created local water companies such as Hyflux Ltd.

Khon Kaen has growing water shortages as supplies drop in dams and rivers, with the most recent rainfall in the Thai province in December, the National News Bureau said. Farmers in the area have been urged by the Royal Irrigation Department to help by stopping any off-season rice growing, according to NNT.

Water Bombing

In Riau, the second-biggest province on Sumatra, an emergency was declared through March 12 because of smoke from fires, said Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, a spokesman at Indonesia’s disaster management agency. Extinguishing the fires will require water bombing, according to local officials.

Satellite images showed 11 fire hot spots in Riau on Feb. 24 compared with as many as 243 on Feb. 11, according to Indonesia’s Forestry Ministry.

“It’s very likely that the lack of rain so far does promote conditions in which these hot spots can form,” said Chow at National University of Singapore.

Disputes over haze flare up regularly between Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. The latest was in June, when smog in Singapore reached a record because of Indonesian forest fires.

While the drought is blamed for forest fires in Riau province, other parts of the country are grappling with floods.

Rhett Butler at Monga Bay and the scientists he cited last year would have a problem on more than one count with the unequivocal statement that the drought caused forest fires in Riau:

Light haze over a drained and deforested peat forest in Riau, Sumatra in February 2014
Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Indonesia's forests so damaged they burn whether or not there's drought
Rhett A. Butler
August 21, 2014

Air pollution caused by fires set for land-clearing on Sumatra has become a regularly occurrence in Southeast Asia, spurring hand-wringing in Singapore and Malaysia over health effects and worries among environmentalists over the climate impacts. While these fires are often termed "forest fires", the reality is much of the area that burns each year has already been deforested and today mostly consists of grass, scrub, and remnants of what was once forest. But the impacts are nonetheless very substantial, finds a new study published in the journal Scientific Reports.

The research, led by David Gaveau of the Center for International Forestry Research in Indonesia, assessed greenhouse gas emissions from fires that burned for a week in June 2013. While the fires were short-lived and almost entirely (82 percent) concentrated on already deforested lands representing less than 2 percent of Indonesia's land mass they released 172 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, or up to 10 percent of the country's annual greenhouse gas emissions. The reason for the large emissions was 84 percent of the burning occurred on peatlands, which store massive amounts of carbon in their soils.

Worryingly, the study notes that the fires occurred in a wetter-than-average year, suggesting that severe forest degradation in Sumatra due to years of clearing and peat drainage for industrial plantation development has set the stage for problem to worsen.

[Graph - Daily time series of fire hotspots from 01 Apr to 15 Aug  2013]

"Our results demonstrate that the Indonesian fires of 2013 behind the record air pollution episode in Singapore were triggered by a seasonal two month dry spell in an otherwise rainy year. These fires were short-lived and confined to recently deforested peatlands in a localized area in Central Sumatra (in Riau Province), reflecting ongoing conversion to oil palm plantations" the authors write. "The area affected was much smaller than the 9.7–11.7 million ha that burned in 1997. However, the emissions of GHG and smoke during this brief localized event (one week and 1.6% of Indonesia’s land) were disproportionately large because of the peat.

[Graph - Vegetation cover of the burned areas]

"Our observations show that extreme air pollution episodes in Southeast Asia are no longer restricted to drought years," they continue. "We expect major haze events to be increasingly frequent because of ongoing deforestation of Indonesian peatlands."
The issue isn't limited to Sumatra — vast areas of what was dense rainforest and peatlands in Indonesian Borneo are also now degraded scrub and burn regularly.

Indonesia has experienced rapid destruction and degradation of its forests in recent decades, even surpassing the Amazon in terms of annual forest loss, according to a separate study published in Nature Climate Change.

[Now we arrive at a group of graphics in the report. Take particular note of Graphic D]

CAPTION: The three-million ha study area in Riau province, Sumatra. (a), Fire hotspots. MODIS daily hotspots distribution for June 2013 (yellow dots) overlaid on a post-fire LANDSAT OLI imagery (12 August 2013) displayed in false colors (RGB: 6-5-4). 

(b), Burned areas. An estimated 163,336 ha burned in the study area: red (non-forest), green (forest), orange (Acacia plantation) and cyan (cloud). Peatlands are shown in darkest shade of grey; superimposed are the seven locations of the UAV transects. The bottom inset is a UAV snapshot over peatlands deforested 3 years prior to the June 2013 fire, where dead carbonized tree trunks and an excavator preparing land for oil palm are clearly visible. 

(c), Pre-fire Deforestation. Loss of species-rich Dipterocarp forest from 1990 until May 2013. Light brown: non forest in 1990. Orange: deforested between 1990-2008. Purple: deforested between 2008 and May 2013. The study area lost 1.72 million ha (78%) of forest between 1990 and May 2013 (including 1 million ha on peat).

(d), Pre-fire land-ownership map. Industrial oil palm and Acacia plantations developed by companies in concessions are shown in yellow, and in khaki, respectively. Concessions (for both oil palm and Acacia) occupied by communities are shown in black. Lands outside concessions are in white. Forest cover (unoccupied land) one month before fire is shown in dark green. Maps created using ArcMap v10.0 geospatial processing program. The data used to generate the maps presented in this figure are made available online at

Image and caption courtesy of the [study] authors. 

CITATION: David Gaveau et al. Major atmospheric emissions from peat fires in Southeast Asia during non-drought years: evidence from the 2013 Sumatran fires. SCIENTIFIC REPORTS | 4 : 6112 | DOI: 10.1038/srep06112 

Now it's time to bring in a few of the passages from Jasmine Ng's report for Bloomberg I'd skipped earlier:
Palm oil, the world’s most-used edible oil, is heading for the biggest monthly advance since October. Southeast Asia’s dry weather is spurring speculation of lower output growth, according to Michael Coleman, a hedge-fund manager.
Malaysia and Indonesia account for 86 percent of palm output, according to the U.S.
Agriculture Department. Futures may advance to 3,000 ringgit ($915) a metric ton within four months, the highest price since 2012, said Coleman, who helps to manage the $143 million Merchant Commodity Fund from Singapore. The price settled at 2,779 ringgit yesterday.
Investors are also betting that an El Nino weather pattern will return in 2014, potentially cutting palm output, Coleman said. El Nino affects weather worldwide and can parch Indonesia and Malaysia.
Dry weather may limit Indonesia’s increase in palm production in the first half, Martua Sitorus, the executive deputy chairman at Wilmar International Ltd., said Feb. 21. The Singapore-based company is the largest palm oil processor.
I'll concede that it is not given to our race to see around corners.  So at the time palm oil became a big-ticket global trade commodity, nobody had heard of flying rivers except maybe some Brazilian scientists nobody listened to.  The fancy GRACE satellite system, now giving back readings on how much groundwater the world has left, was still far off as were fancy satellite systems that now peer into the world's forests to see how much of them are left.

It was all about carbon emissions back then.  If a palm producing country and palm oil processors managed to at least partly mollify the carbon emissions swap crowd, they could go on doing business as usual.

Then, just within the past two years data from the fancy satellites, computer programs, math, and, uh, geospatial engineering began to converge. People in governments and boardrooms at global corporations like PepsiCo sat up straight and asked, 'Now what was that Brazilian rattling on about with these flying rivers?'

It was a little late in the day to be asking such questions.

So we find an ngo called Sum of Us getting up an online petition to pressure PepsiCo to "Commit to buying responsible, rainforest-healthy palm oil."

And there's Rhett Butler hanging out of a prop plane, snapping photographs of what's left of the rainforests in palm oil country.

For more on Indonesia's peat fires, which can race quickly underground then burst to the surface, see Lim Chia Ying's April 20 report for The Star (Malaysia), So long as peatlands are cleared for agriculture, there will be haze.  From the report:
Despite laws and policies in Indonesia limiting the opening of peatlands, the prevalent culture of patronage and decentralisation see companies getting logging concessions.
“The Indonesian law states that any peatland exceeding 3m in depth should be protected, and no concessions should be issued for areas where more than 30% is made up of peat with a thickness of at least 3m. Yet, the law hasn’t had much of an effect, as many firms have so-called ‘functional directors’ appointed to perform ‘extra-economic’ functions.
These individuals are usually retired bureaucrats who act as intermediaries with the state and perform advisory and brokerage functions on behalf of the company, and are able to secure choice parcels of land,” says [Dr Helena] Varkkey who has studied Indonesia’s peatland politics and its complexities.
Also, the location of peatlands far from cities deters effective monitoring by enforcement authorities.
This despite the fact that the pollutants from the haze are particularly deadly (see report for details) and affect populations in Brunei and Thailand in addition to Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore.

Yet while Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesian squabble over toxic peat smog they cooperate in an industrial agricultural export model that can only be described as "Shoot Yourself in the Head."

See also Water Crisis in Malaysia as Drought Dries Up Reservoirs; February 20, 2014; The Herald (Zimbabwe).  


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