Monday 28 August 2017

Haze-proofing in Indonesian Borneo

By Cory Rogers, Communication Officer

Simple materials like these were used to test the efficacy of low-cost air sealing methods with partners in Palangka Raya, Central Kalimantan, a haze hotspot © Cory Rogers / UNICEF / 2017

Palangka Raya: Locals in Palangka Raya, Central Kalimantan, say haze gets so bad they sometimes can’t get home.

“I fish for a living,” says Ipung, a lissome father of two who lives on the edge of the Rungan River, 40 minutes upstream from Palanga Raya. “When the haze came we suffered; children missed school, and we all got coughs.”

His village of Katimpun lies close by the annual peat fires that shroud parts of Kalimantan -- Indonesia's portion of the island of Borneo -- in blankets of haze every year. Since December 2016, UNICEF has been working to find ways to help families like Ipung’s keep their children safe from the acrid smoke.

“Back then I couldn’t even use the motor on my boat – I had to row home quietly, straining to hear my wife calling so I could find my house,” Ipung says. “Sometimes it was too hard to see, so I just slept in the forest.”

That was back in the fall of 2015, when haze wafted in so thick the air turned yellow and one could barely see past their nose. Fires blazed, forests fell, and when it was all said and done, some 4.5 million hectares were burned – a chunk roughly the size of Denmark.

Ipung in front of his home © Cory Rogers / UNICEF / 2017
Tens of thousands were hospitalized from the smoke pollution, and many thousands more are expected to see their lives shortened from the exposure. Importantly, the effects are most severe for children, who have lungs and organs that are still developing, and who spend more time outdoors, on average, than adults.

“Children are exposed to toxic air pollution for months during a bad fire season, and during this period their learning is disrupted by school closure,” says Richard Wecker, UNICEF Indonesia Disaster Risk Reduction Specialist. “Year in and year out, this has a compounding effect on a child’s ability to survive, learn and prosper – not to mention their inheritance of a scorched earth.”

For all its destructiveness, Ipung says stopping haze should be a relatively simple fix.

“In the dry season, if it doesn’t rain, the fires stay lit,” he says as his neighbor, another fishermen, slides onto the riverbank, 30 fish in tow. “But since we can’t make rain, we have to stop the fires. It’s as simple as that.”

Harm reduction

In a sense, Ipung is right. Preventing fires is the only way to stop haze.

But as the Government of Indonesia continues its efforts to clamp down on haze-spewing agricultural fires (in particular, fires on carbon-rich peat swamps, estimated to have driven 90 per cent of the 2015 haze), families need to be protected from the hazardous smoke when the fires do occur – especially children.

“Several studies show a correlation between exposure to tiny smoke particles and the onset of chronic respiratory illnesses, mortality, developmental delays and other health risks in children,” says UNICEF’s Wecker.

Children in this riverside village of Katimpun, Palangka Raya, suffer from periodic haze events that put their health and education at risk © Cory Rogers / UNICEF / 2017
Compared to, say, exhaust fumes, for which emissions control systems have been developed, the risk of haze exposure is poorly understood: It is only over the last few decades that haze became a major public health threat, and long term studies are ongoing.

“The fact that we don’t have a complete picture of the effects of cumulative exposure makes harm reduction measures all the more important,” Wecker adds.

“What we do know, however, is that children are the most vulnerable to haze’s impacts, and that finding solutions should start where they spend the most time – in the home and at school.”

Safe spaces on the cheap?

The goal of the UNICEF intervention is to develop a how-to guide for haze-proofing rooms – one that is affordable, replicable and appealing to locals. It is also to work with the government of Indonesia to better understand and document minimum standards for indoor and ambient air pollution.

Palangka Raya-based NGO Ranu Welum Foundation, UNICEF’s local partner in the endeavour, was founded in 2015 with a focus on local culture and media, but its concerns broadened to include haze preparedness as the haze crisis hit its peak.

Located just 20 minutes south of Katimpun, Ranu Welum’s headquarters double as a ‘haze shelter’  that can filter out even smallest, most dangerous particulate matter found in haze.

A Big Red Button team member helps improve the haze-proof door design at Ranu Welum’s headquarters in Palangka Raya © Cory Rogers / UNICEF / 2017

“The haze-proofing here is a great educational tool,” says founder Emmanuela Shinta. “But since it is expensive, it’s not something local communities can easily build themselves.”

JP Wack, a UNICEF technical consultant, led an air-quality testing team that included members from PulseLab Jakarta, Ranu Welum, Singapore-based Big Red Button, Kopernik and the Bureau of Meterology, Climatology and Geophysics (BMKG) to find the simplest, cheapest way to keep haze out.

Two homes were selected – a wooden one in Ipung’s village and a concrete house in the city.

We took simple stock of where outside air can infiltrate into the two homes so we knew where to seal,” Wack said. “We came to Palangkaraya with locally sourced fans and a filter as a low cost, DIY air purifier solution. Then we bought the remaining materials we needed at the local hardware stores and got to work.”

The total costs for materials – simple things like hammers and sheets of plastic – was around Rp850,000 (60 USD), he added. “A bit more than we were hoping, but still in the strike zone.”

“To determine how effective our design was at removing toxic particulate matter, we simulated haze conditions in a room by burning some wood chips. Then we used an air quality monitoring device to see the change in toxic haze levels following the use of the fan and filter.

"The solution was successful at removing fine particulate matter,” Wack said. "But it is clear the challenge is greater in wooden homes than the more modern concrete ones in Palangka Raya because of issues related to over-heating once the rooms are sealed.”

With the dry season setting in and fire conditions improving, UNICEF’s low-cost haze-proofing experiment meets an immediate need. The challenge will be perfecting the prototypes and encouraging adoption by locals – a task awaiting the next phase in UNICEF’s budding haze-harms intervention.

“This isn’t just about Palangka Raya,” said Ranu Welum’s Shinta (pictured below) following a meeting with UNICEF and local government stakeholders on reducing haze’s impacts.

“This is about starting a movement to build awareness all across the province.”

Emmanuela Shinta and UNICEF's Richard Wecker participate in a meeting with government stakeholders © Cory Rogers / UNICEF / 2017