What if London was burning; FIRE FIRE! Sumatra shame…

It’s still very wet here in Sabangau this June , but the dry season looms ever closer. Sumatra fires over the past week need rain so badly that little primates in flying machines are trying to ‘seed clouds’ to put out the blaze. There is no way of predicting what the drier months will bring – each year of dry months are completely different and are becoming even less predictable. 
 

As I type, the Sumatran island of Indonesia is burning. Fires started to clear land for agriculture become out of control and burn hot and high. They burn so hot and so high, that the smoke is clogging the lungs and severally reducing  vision of the people in Singapore. “Singapore’s pollution index reached 371 on Wednesday, the worst level since 1997” (1)

Medan of Sumatra is about 391 miles away from Singapore. The smoke has been travelling from the equivalent of London, across ocean, to just south of Glasgow. This pollution has happened consistently for three days and shows no sign of stopping – at least as long as governments and companies continue to pass this hot potato back and forth…

The majority of fires appear to becoming from large, company owned Palm Oil plantations. In this case, it is the companies responsibility to extinguish the fires – perhaps their on an extended kopi break… obviously not watching the news reports on pollution for their neighbours though.

Wet peat-swamp is a healthy peat-swamp. The only reason it becomes at all dry is to do with human interference. Combined with the dry seasons becoming drier and longer , stories of previous dry seasons – including some very intense and disastrous fires – means me and my colleagues are hoping 2013 stays a little wetter!…

Closer to my heart, the Sabangau Forest is one of the last places in Borneo where you can find a vast expanse of  tropical peat-swamp forest with a full complement of Borneo’s plant and animal species. Although now protected, Sabangau was over-exploited in the recent past. Illegal loggers dug canals in the peat to float out wood (illegally cut down) – using the canals made it easier to avoid getting caught! Although the illegal logging is over and the area now well protected, the canals remain…

This is the same peat and water based ecosystem that used to cover Sumatra. Instead of canals, mass palm oil plantations have dried the peat – ready to go up in smoke in style! The canals or removal of the natural tree and plant species dry the peat substantially.Despite serval dams on all the large canals, areas of the Sabangau forest still become much drier than they should be. The fast following water washes down off the northward mountain ranges and naturally flows in the canals into the river. This path of least resistance avoids flowing and begin soaked up in the peat soil of the swamp – so the drainage has changed what has been happening previously for 1000s and 1000s of years.

As the peat dries, the decomposition rates increase, changing the chemical and moisture composition of the entire, complex forest / soil ecosystem, but it also makes the dry seasons even more dangerous…

Dry peat burns easier that wet peat. In fact it’s very fast burning due to the huge amounts of carbon it stores – the fires become incredibly hot and difficult to put out. It is the wet conditions of the ecosystem that produce this much carbon, but it has taken 1000s of years to form the peat and carbon stores which only take months to dry out and burn off , leaving behind low nutrient, useless dust and dirt. The trees that are specifically adapted to hold the peat together and make the most of the wet peat won’t grow once the peat is burnt, so there is not hope of reforestation not retaining the soil long enough to add nutrients back into the system… As always with circular and linked systems, it’s only as strong as it’s weakest link; the peat is getting drier and the fires are becoming more frequent.Drained and cleared peat-forests are much more susceptible to fires than primary rainforest. The fires can be VERY large during periods of extreme drought, burning inside and even underneath the forest.

The 2012 Bornean dry season has seen over 300 fires in Central Kalimantan alone. As well as protecting wildlife, teams such as OuTrop’s and CIMTROP’s Patrol team who fighting fires, carry out  critical work for reducing carbon emissions from peatlands – probably the most concentrated land-use related carbon emission in the world, having a tremendous impact on future climate change and health and wellbeing of local human populations.

Every dry season brings uncertainty and lasting rains are welcomed (everyone loves a good storm!) . Hopefully some one will get some water from somewhere soon – for the fires and for the peat!

As always , thanks for reading
EcoPieThea

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