Indonesia's forest fires are still raging two months on from when they began earlier this year, creating thick smoke that's blanketing Indonesia and surrounding countries, including Singapore and Malaysia.
Though it's a yearly occurrence, this year's haze may be responsible for 10 deaths and around 500,000 respiratory infections, the Guardian reports. The fires are also producing more carbon emissions each day than the output of the whole U.S. economy, according to the World Resources Institute.
Most of the fires are started in an effort to clear forests to use for palm tree plantations. The palm oil industry in Indonesia has been expanding over the last few years, driven by demand for products like shampoo and chocolates. Environmentalists have criticized the industry for allegedly clearing protected habitats and rainforests.
While the Indonesian government has been reluctant to accept help from its neighbors in the past, Singapore, Malaysia, Australia, Russia, and Japan have sent reinforcement to help fight the fires and evacuate people if necessary.
“This is a crime against humanity of extraordinary proportions,” Sutopo Puro Nugroho, a spokesperson for Indonesia's Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG), told the Guardian. “But now is not the time to point fingers but to focus on how we can deal with this quickly.”
The pollution is sometimes visible as far away as Manila in the Philippines:
This year's prolonged fires may in part be the result an extended dry season and the effects of the weather cycle El Niño. But environmentalists say the government's inaction in regulating the palm oil industry is the core problem.
Indonesian President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo said last week the government won't issue any new licenses for clearing wetlands. But, The Jakarta Post reported, environmentalists are not convinced that it's enough, or that the policy will be enforced.
President Jokowi is in the U.S. this week, meeting with President Obama in the Oval Office today.
“As Presidents Obama and Jokowi meet, much of Indonesia and Southeast Asia will be choking on smoke from fires set to clear forests for farming,” Nigel Purvis, CEO of Climate Advisers, told the Washington Post. “In 2009, President Jokowi’s predecessor pledged that Indonesia would reduce deforestation dramatically. That hasn’t happened yet. The stars are aligning for President Jokowi to deliver now, and this will be a test of his climate leadership.”
A White House spokesperson told reporters on Friday that the two leaders would not be discussing climate change during their meeting.