The Impact of Indonesian Forest Fires on Singaporean Pollution and Health

Am Econ Rev. 2017 May;107(5):526-9. doi: 10.1257/aer.p20171134.


Between 1990 and 2015, Indonesia lost nearly 25 percent of its forests, largely due to intentional burning to clear land for cultivation of palm oil and timber plantations.1 The neighboring "victim countries" experienced severe deteriorations in air quality as a result of these fires. For example, Singapore experienced record air pollution levels in June of 2013 and again in September of 2015 as a result of the Indonesian forest fires.2 This air pollution is associated with increased incidences of upper respiratory tract infections, acute conjunctivitis, lung disease, asthma, bronchitis, emphysema, and pneumonia, among other ailments.2 Quantifying the impact of air pollution on health outcomes is challenging because pollution levels are often nonrandom for a variety of reasons, including policy endogeneity and sorting (Dominici, Greenstone, and Sunstein 2014). In this paper we offer the first causal analysis of the transboundary health effects of the Indonesian forest burning. The Indonesian fires induce exogenous variation in Singaporean air quality. We take advantage of this by using satellite fire data to instrument for changes in Singaporean air quality. Since Singapore is only 277.6 square miles in area (two-thirds the size of New York City), air pollution resulting from the fires is homogeneously spread so that sorting is less likely to be an issue. Using a two-stage least squares approach, we find that from 2010 through mid-2016, the Indonesian fires caused a statistically significant increase in pollution levels in Singapore. Our study also provides evidence that polyclinic attendances for acute respiratory tract infections and acute conjunctivitis in Singapore increased as a result of the deterioration in air quality. The reduced form estimates show that a one standard deviation increase in our measure of fires causes a 0.7 standard deviation increase in polyclinic attendances for each of these illnesses. These findings provide causal evidence of the transboundary pollution and health impacts of the Indonesian forest burning on neighboring Singapore.

MeSH terms

  • Air Pollution / adverse effects*
  • Conjunctivitis / epidemiology*
  • Conjunctivitis / etiology
  • Conservation of Natural Resources
  • Fires*
  • Humans
  • Indonesia
  • Respiratory Tract Infections / epidemiology*
  • Respiratory Tract Infections / etiology
  • Singapore / epidemiology
  • Smoke / adverse effects*


  • Smoke