Deforestation harms vulnerable communities

Fire in Tesso Nilo National Park, Sumatra, Indonesia, on 5th July 2015 - made available through a partnership of Global Forest Watch Fires and Digital Globe. Photo: World Resources Institute via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA).
Fire in Tesso Nilo National Park, Sumatra, Indonesia, on 5th July 2015 - made available through a partnership of Global Forest Watch Fires and Digital Globe. Photo: World Resources Institute via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA).
Temperature rise driven by climate breakdown and deforestation increasing heat-related deaths in rural communities in Indonesia.

The wider implications for human health and livelihoods are worrying and definitely justify further research to find solutions.

Heat-related deaths in a vulnerable community in Indonesia have been linked directly to nearby deforestation by new research published in The Lancet.

The research by US-based The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and scientists from the University of Washington and Indonesia’s Mulawaran University focused on the Berau region of East Kalimantan in Indonesia, where 4375 km² of forested land was cleared between 2002 and 2018, the equivalent of 17 percent of the whole area.

The researchers used data from satellite monitoring of forest cover, temperature, and population, alongside intelligence from The Lancet’s Global Burden of Disease reports to estimate the impacts of deforestation and climate change on deaths due to heat exposure, and the effects of deforestation and climate change on unsafe work conditions.

Labourers

Local deforestation, combined with climate change, had already caused mean daily maximum temperatures to increase by 0.95°C, they found, which in turn had led to an eight percent increase in mortality between 2002 and 2018.

Researchers projected that the region could ultimately experience an estimated 17-20 percent increase in deaths, and up to five hours a day where temperatures are unsafe to work in by 2100, compared with 2018, if temperatures rise by 3°C compared with pre-industrial levels.

A 2019 study in the same region found that outdoor labourers worked, on average, 6.5 hours a day, and are already shifting work schedules to avoid the hottest times of the day.

Vulnerable

The study is significant because it is believed to be one of the first-ever studies to reveal how temperature rises driven by climate change and local deforestation are already increasing heat-related deaths among rural communities in a tropical country.

A growing body of research indicates that in tropical countries, both climate change and deforestation are increasing temperatures and heat exposure, but the combined risks of these changes have so far been underappreciated, according to the study.

The wider implications for human health and livelihoods are worrying and definitely justify further research to find solutions.

For example, forest clearing in tropical countries can cause immediate increases in local temperatures of up to 8°C and exacerbate daytime temperature variation. Studies have also shown that the amount of warming increases when deforested patches are greater than 100 km², and that the effects of warming can extend up to 50km beyond deforested sites.

Worrying

However, little is known about how warming associated with deforestation affects human health at geographical scales of more than 10,000 km²), or how these risks are likely to change in the future.

Deforestation is driven largely by outdoor labour-intensive industries, such as mining, farming, and palm oil production, leaving many people in the area with no choice but to work outdoors.

The temperature rise experienced in just 16 years in Berau was equivalent to that seen in the wider world in 150, lead author Dr Nicholas Wolff of The Nature Conservancy pointed out.

“The wider implications for human health and livelihoods are worrying and definitely justify further research to find solutions,” he said.

This Author

Catherine Early is chief reporter for The Ecologist and a freelance environmental journalist. She tweets at @Cat_Early76.

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