JAKARTA – The fires that destroyed large parts of forest on the Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Borneo this year have caused economic losses worth $5.2 billion or 0.5 percent of the country’s GDP, the World Bank said on Wednesday.
In a report, the Bank said that the estimate covered fires registered between June and October in eight provinces, which destroyed around 900,000 hectares (around 2.2 million acres) of land, double the average area affected during the three previous years.
“Fires in Indonesia’s rainforests and lands are man-made and have become a chronic problem annually since 1997,” said the report, adding that the losses had been mainly registered in the “agriculture, transportation, trade, industry, and environmental sectors.”
The smoke from the fires, which are often started deliberately to free up more land for agriculture and palm oil plantations, led to a public health emergency in the region. The emissions of greenhouse gases was double that of fires in the Brazilian Amazon due to the large amount of burned carbon-rich peatland.
Indonesian forests, the eighth biggest in the world and third among tropical forests, covers 50 percent of the country’s surface and absorbs a massive amount of carbon dioxide.
According to official data, this year more than 900,000 Indonesians reported suffering from respiratory diseases, while 12 national airports had to halt operations and hundreds of schools in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore had to be closed temporarily due to hazardous air quality.
The World Bank highlighted that despite the measures taken by the Indonesian government to mitigate the fires in recent years, more than half of the fires took place in protected forest or peatland areas.
The blazes were aggravated by one of the driest summers since 2015, due in part to the climate phenomenon known as “El Niño,” which scientists predicted will even more pronounced next year.
This year’s fires were the worst since 2015 when around 2.6 million hectares were burnt, resulting in a series of governmental measures to protect and restore forests and peat bogs.
At the time, the World Bank had put the estimated losses at around $16 billion.