Malaysia — EASILY COMBUSTIBLE: Constant monitoring needed to protect, conserve and sustain our peat swamp forests
THE sweltering heat and haze in recent weeks have not only made the people uncomfortable, but should also serve as a reminder that similar incidents could recur if we fail to protect our forests, especially those in peat swamps.
In the past, prolonged dry spells would trigger forest fires in Pahang, especially in peat swamps that have dried up.
Unknown to many, there are about 1.54 million hectares of peat swamp forests in the country with more than 70 per cent in Sarawak, while some 20 per cent are in Peninsular Malaysia and the remainder in Sabah.
Statistics show that peat swamp forests in the peninsula have been halved to 340,000ha in just 10 years from the 670,000ha recorded in 1981. Most were cleared for agriculture, aquaculture, industries and residential schemes.
Interestingly, about 200,000ha of the remnants are available in Pahang, particularly in Tasik Bera and the South-East Pahang Peat Swamp Forest (SEPPSF) complex, which is the largest block of undisturbed mixed peat swamp forest remaining in Peninsular Malaysia.
The SEPPSF complex has also been the subject of global conservation interest as it has huge biological diversity while supporting the livelihood of local communities, including the Orang Asli.
Studies by various parties show that SEPPSF could also be mainland Asia’s largest and least disturbed peat swamp forest that remains as a single nearly contiguous complex.
To conserve the rapidly depleting peat swamp forests or black water jewel, the government had in 1999 initiated a project with support and funding from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Global Environment Facility (GEF) in collaboration with the Danish International Development Assistance.
Commenced in mid-2002, the project’s goal was to develop and implement integrated management plans that will facilitate the conservation and sustainable use of peat swamp forests. It focuses on three sites in SEPPSF: the Klias Peninsula in Sabah and Loagan Bunut in Sarawak.
The government has also ratified the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance Especially as Waterfowl Habitat in 1994, with Tasik Bera listed as a Ramsar site.
Such efforts have helped conserve the rich natural heritage found in the tropical rainforests of Malaysia, which have special ecological characteristics and are home to unique fauna and flora.
But the unique and fragile natural heritage also requires constant monitoring as the drastic fall of the water table during dry periods could spell a disaster.
Fortunately, experiences have taught agencies in Pahang an important lesson that they must always take pre-emptive measures before the situation goes out of control
Therefore, the Department of Environment (DOE) constantly checks the water table in peat swamps while the Fire and Rescue Department has been on standby since May when the dry season begins.
It has always been a tough challenge for the Fire and Rescue Department as every year, some of the peat swamp areas would be affected by fire, especially during the dry period and worsen the haze.
The DOE and firefighters have to monitor the situation on a daily basis and must immediately put out bush fires, no matter how small they are.
In past weeks, the agencies also managed to locate and douse several fires involving dried lalang fields, which have stopped them from spreading to peat swamp areas and turn into a disaster.
Open burning has always been the main cause of forest fires in the state but irresponsible acts by certain people have also worsened the situation.
When the flora and fauna have withered and peat swamps have dried up during the dry season, the peat forests will become a sitting duck.
Peat forms when organic material in marshy areas is inhibited from decaying. Due to its high carbon content, the smouldering peat fires can sometimes burn for a very long period as they creep through the underground peat layer.
In many instances, campers and anglers are to be blamed when they forget to put out campfires and cigarette butts when leaving the forest.
And it will make the firefighters’ job more difficult as they have to find ways to put out fires in remote or inaccessible areas.
Like it or not, we must never expose the black water jewel to fire hazards when it is at its most vulnerable condition or we may have to wear face masks again.