Red Cross continues to support haze-hit communities in Indonesia

Published: 18 November 2015 7:53 CET

By Ahmad Husein, IFRC Indonesia

In recent weeks, long awaited monsoon rains have finally helped to extinguish a large portion of the devastating forest fires that have been raging in Indonesia for the past three months. The fires, caused by Palm oil and paper pulp companies and smallholder farmers illegally setting fire to forests to clear land to plant more trees, have had a devastating cost on the regions environment, economy and on human health.

The worst hit areas of southern Kalimantan (Borneo) and western Sumatra have been enveloped in a toxic haze caused by the fires which also spread to neighbouring countries including Singapore and Malaysia. The burning of some 2.1 million hectares of forests and other land has caused 21 deaths and led to more than 500,000 falling ill with respiratory problems.

Efforts to extinguish the fires which began in July were hampered due to the dry conditions worsened by the current El Nino event impacting the region. According to the World Resources Institute, emissions from this year’s fires have reached 1.62 billion metric tons of CO2—which moved Indonesia from the sixth-largest emitter in the world up to the fourth-largest in just six weeks.

When the fires escalated in September and October, the Indonesian Red Cross deployed over 600 volunteers to provide humanitarian support to affected communities in Kalimantan and Sumatra. The teams deployed with water tankers, ambulances and water purification units and also distributed thousands of face masks.

Emergency funding from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) disaster response emergency fund (DREF), the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and USAID has helped support the Indonesian Red Cross’s relief work in nine districts across three affected provinces. 

A three month emergency response operations plan from November to January 2016 included the establishment of emergency houses, also known as “smoke-free facilities” which are equipped with air purifiers aimed at easing the respiratory problems caused by the haze. These centres cater particularly to vulnerable groups such as children, pregnant women and the elderly – by providing first aid, basic symptomatic treatment, health education, psycho-social support and referral to health facilities in case needed.

Red Cross medical action teams are also providing mobile health services for people in remote areas who can’t access health facilities in cities. Doctors and medical staff provide first aid, distribution of oxygen, vitamins, eye drops and face masks as well as health education.

Fahmi Kubra, father of five children lives in Muara Teweh, Central Kalimantan. When thick smoke covered the city, his youngest child fell ill with a severe respiratory infection. When Fahmi brought his child to the local hospital,  he found that all the rooms had been occupied with patients with the same problem. Most of them are children and the elderly. His only option was to return home and receive treatment as an outpatient.  

The situation for local residents in Palembang, South Sumatra was no different.  “Of the patients we were treating with respiratory problems almost fifty percent were children,” explained Rugayah Haniya, a doctor at a local community health center in the city.

Although the haze has now reduced significantly, community members still come to the Red Cross  emergency houses with continuing  respiratory complaints. With the rains come another set of health threats associated with waterborne and communicable diseases. One of the roles of the Red Cross mobile clinics is to conduct health promotion activities amongst local community to ensure they are better prepared in the event of any potential disease outbreaks.