Transboundary haze in Southeast Asia: What’s peat got to do with it?

People in Southeast Asia are breathing some of the most polluted air in the world. A 2020 study ranked Indonesia, Vietnam, and Myanmar in the world’s top 20 countries for air pollution, based on average PM2.5 concentration. Beyond our baseline air pollution, which tends to be worst in urban and industrial areas, Southeast Asia suffers from seasonal transboundary air pollution known as haze. Chronic haze episodes cause major social, health, and economic disruptions across the region. 

The costs of haze are hard to quantify. In 2015, a protracted haze episode lasting nine weeks cost Singapore between S$700 million and S$1.83 billion. The World Bank estimated that the 2015 haze cost Indonesia US$16 billion; a more recent haze event in 2019 cost the country US$5.2 billion. Thailand in 2019 incurred losses of around US$77.5 million. Haze-induced deaths have proven more difficult to quantify, with estimates for the 2015 episode ranging between 40,000 and 100,000 due to a combination of pre-existing illnesses, uneven access to medical facilities, and the region’s substantial informal migrant population that are not always counted in official figures. 

Why is the transboundary haze problem so hard to tackle, what role do peatlands have in this, and can shifts in consumer demand change anything? Dr Helena Varkkey, Associate Member of the Inter-Asia Engagements Cluster at the NUS Asia Research Institute and Associate Professor from Universiti Malaya, and Dr Michelle Ann Miller,  ARI Senior Research Fellow, examined the issue in a digital data story produced in collaboration with Kontinentalist.