Indonesia’s annual haze from wildfires in Sumatra and Kalimantan is again spreading across the wider region, the latest cloud to gather over President Joko Widodo’s failed attempts to contain a problem that has made the country into a carbon-emitting environmental disaster site.

To the president’s obvious annoyance and frustration, the gathering haze threatens to be as bad as it was in 2015, when 115,000 fires burning as far afield as easternmost Papua churned out the equivalent of more than 1.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide over a 10-month period.

Indonesia refuses to accept all the blame, claiming that satellite imagery shows Malaysian and Singapore oil palm companies own several of the 42 agricultural concessions on the two islands where more than 1,600 hot spots have been detected in the past three weeks.

But Indonesia’s record on forest fires dating back to the late 1990s has been a national embarrassment, as has its failure to deal effectively with a problem that in 2015 resulted in an estimated US$16 billion in economic losses in Indonesia alone and 100,000 in premature health-related deaths across Southeast Asia, according to the World Bank.

While the haze has had some impact on Jakarta, pollution has worsened noticeably in the Indonesian capital over the past two years to a point where it now regularly ranks among the world’s worst polluted cities and is fast becoming a critical public issue.

Schoolchildren in Jakarta cover their mouths and noses amid wildfire-created smog, September 12, 2019. Photo: Twitter

Throughout this week, for example, Air Quality Index (AQI) readings have topped 160, with a fine particle matter (PM2.5) concentration as high as 81.5 micrograms per cubic meter, rated as unhealthy for sensitive groups.

A civil society group has recently heaped more pressure on Widodo by suing him, the environmental and health ministers and three provincial governors for breaching the rights of Jakarta’s 10 million citizens to a clean and healthy environment.

The new haze crisis has arisen despite Indonesia reportedly implementing stricter land management restrictions on agricultural companies, including a nationwide moratorium on the cultivation of peatland, where fires emit ten times more dangerous gases and are difficult to extinguish.

Less deforestation also appeared to reduce the environmental impact, with US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) satellites noting significant declines in hotspots in 2017 and 2018 and even through the first six months of this year, in stark contrast to what has been happening in Brazil’s Amazon Basin.

But if the government has become more serious about tackling the fires, it can do little about the pending onset of El Nino, the climate pattern related to the warming of waters in the central and eastern parts of the equatorial Pacific Ocean which leads to an extended dry season.

Under public criticism for failing to do more to take agri-business companies to task, law enforcement agencies have already arrested nearly 200 alleged culprits as 15,000 firefighters and 40 aerial water-bombers battle to try and prevent the haze from drifting across Singapore and parts of Malaysia.

Indonesia’s haze has enveloped neighboring Singapore. Photo: Twitter

Diplomatic tensions are rising nonetheless. Malaysian Environment Minister Yeo Bee Yin has accused her Indonesian counterpart, Siti Nurbaya Bakar, whose surname ironically means “burn” in Indonesian, of being in denial after she claimed some of the smog came from wildfires in Malaysia.

Singapore isn’t happy either. Choking haze has blanketed the city only days out from the Formula One grand prix, forcing racing bosses to put contingency plans in place in case the air quality deteriorates any further. It has already been labelled “unhealthy.”

Although there is little precipitation in the forecast for the next week, Dutch earth scientist Guido van der Werf says it is difficult to determine how long the current climatic conditions will persist, noting that in 2015 the rains only began in mid-October.

According to Van der Werf, the daily number of active fire detections by satellite is the same as four years ago, although the 2015 fire season started earlier and was more intense, producing 50% more detections by this time of the year.

Most of the haze is caused by peat, vast underground deposits of carbon that only ignite during an El Nino-induced drought. But Sumatra is also affected by the Indian Ocean Dipole, where the western waters become alternately warmer and then colder than the eastern part of the ocean.

Longer term climate predictions aren’t encouraging. A 10-year-long study released in 2014 showed that the sea current, pushing warm waters from the western Pacific into the Indian Ocean through Indonesia’s network of straits, is also acting differently and could transform the climate in both ocean basins as a result.

Indonesia is the only tropical location in the world where two oceans interact in this manner, with the so-called Indonesia-Through-Flow (ITF) playing a role in everything from Indian monsoons to increasingly frequent El Ninos.

The main in-flow passage through the archipelago is the Makassar Strait which separates Borneo from Sulawesi. Some water then enters the Indian Ocean through the Lombok Strait, between Lombok and Bali, while the bulk flows east into the Banda Sea and out through the Ombai Strait and Timor Passage.

According to American and Australian scientists, the ITF has become shallower and more intense in the same way as water passes through a kinked hose. That suggests that climate change may worsen the effects of the El Nino and its wet sister, La Nina.

The 1990s in Indonesia were largely characterized by sustained El Nino conditions—particularly towards the end of the decade—which then changed to large swings between El Nino and La Nina conditions in the early part of the 2000s.

Indonesians remember El Nina from 2010-2011 when the cooling of the Pacific meant they didn’t have a dry season at all. So do hapless Queenslanders in Australia, who were deluged with rain for eight straight months and suffered the worst flooding in their history.

Firefighters work to extinguish a fire at a peat land forest in Payung Sekaki, Riau province, Sumatra island, Indonesia, August 2, 2019. Photo: AFP/Wahyudi

Now comes yet another El Nino, which begins when the trade winds weaken and the surface water being driven across the central and eastern Pacific became progressively warmer because of its longer exposure to solar heating.

The worst of these such events occurred in 1997-98. With rainfall well below the average for March and April, a year-long drought set in, triggering calamitous bush fires across Kalimantan and Sumatra as farmers sought to replace depleted food crops.

California’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography believes changes in the IFT could shift rainfall patterns across the whole Asian region. In other words, the seasons could be turned completely on their heads, with all that means for agriculture, fisheries and air quality in Indonesia and many of its Southeast Asian neighbors.