Bengkalis Dams Canals to Prevent Forested Peatland Fires

Bengkalis Dams Canals to Prevent Forested Peatland Fires

28 March 2008

published by The Jakarta Post

Sumatra, Indonesia — The Bengkalis regency administration in Riau province will build sluices at 30 canals in Bukit Batu district to retain peatland waterflow, a move it believes will curb recurrent fires in forested peatlands.

Now barren from widespread logging, the once dense peatlands are losing their water retention capacity.

Last month, fire razed through 1,600 hectares of peatland in Bukit Batu.

“There are a lot of illicit canals in those areas. I’m sure there won’t be fires next year after the sluices are built, or at least they will considerably minimized compared to previous years,” said Bengkalis Regent Syamsurizal.

Illegal loggers in Riau have built canals to drift timber to the sea.

Syamsurizal said the hundreds of canals in Bukit Batu had worsened the condition of the peatlands. In 2006, the local administration built floodgates in seven major canals in Tanjung Leban village, Bukit Batu, to control the volume of water.

“The sluices have proven effective. No fires were recorded around the seven canals because the peat has become more moist,” he said.

The administration has set aside between Rp 15 million (US$1,600) and Rp 20 million to build each sluice and will close minor canals in Bukit Batu, previously used to channel illegal timber to the Bengkalis Strait.

Forestry expert and lecturer at the Lancang Kuning University in Pekanbaru, Jonotoro, fully supported the initiative to mitigate anticipated peatland fires. He said, however, the sluices should function entirely as a dam and not a floodgate that could be drawn and shut, so the peatland could be completely saturated.

“A more precise method is to close the canals. But in the meantime, they can be dammed to raise the water level and prevent fire from spreading,” he said.

Jonotoro said the canals contributed to the drying up of the peatland. Peat is full of cavities making it highly flammable when dry.

“Fires are hard to trace because they burn under the surface. Trees also fall easily in dry peatland,” he said, adding that damaged and dry peatland is toxic for crop production.

“If the water level drops, toxic ferrous oxide will be emitted. Loss of  water causes oxygen to perforate into peat and oxidizes it producing the toxic gas, which is detrimental to plants,” added Jonotoro.

Since a large area of peatland in Bukit Batu has been damaged, he proposed the sluice construction project go together with planting local vegetation species.

“Peatland conservation is very intricate. After saturating it, there should be efforts to replant barren areas,” he said.

Vice coordinator of the Riau Forest Protection Network Haryansah urged other local administrations in the province to immediately follow efforts carried out by Bengkalis regency in preserving peatland.

“This is a good preemptive move because the government only reacts after the situation arises. Don’t just dam the illicit canals, also dam those built by plantation companies,” said Haryansah. He also called on the Bengkalis administration and companies operating in the area to stop building canals in the peatlands. “Bengkalis is near the sea and peatland is susceptible to sea water intrusion,” he added.

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