Malaysia — ABANDONED mining ponds in Kuala Selangor are not just good for topping up water levels in Sungai Selangor, but they can also play a role in saving peatlands during extreme dry periods.
The state Forestry Department is in the process of tapping water from one such pond adjacent to the 4,000ha Raja Musa Forest Reserve (RMFR) in its quest to prevent this highly-degraded peat swamp from going up in smoke.
Located at the western part of Selangor, RMFR has been subject to logging in the past, before it was encroached upon by illegal settlers who attempted to cultivate cash crops on it.
Selangor Forestry director Dr Puat Dahalan said a series of pumps would be installed to move water from the pond into the network of ditches all over the peat land when there was a prolonged absence of rain.
This is one way that is being tried out to prevent this vulnerable forest from catching fire, he told StarMetro during the World Wetlands Day celebration at RMFR.
So far, 2km of high-density polyethylene piping with a diameter of 225mm have been installed since March 2014, and there are plans to extend it all the way which will come up to 3km, said Global Environment Centre (GEC) director Faizal Parish.
GEC is an non-governmental organisation (NGO) which is extensively involved in restoring RMFR through a multi-agency and multi-stakeholder process.
It is a Malaysian-registered charity that works on environmental issues of global importance, and its community partner at RMFR are villagers nearby who are members of the Sahabat Hutan Gambut Selangor Utara (Friends of North Selangor Peat Forest), a registered society set up to watch over the reserve.
The cost of installing the system, which was undisclosed, was borne by the Forestry Department, the Kuala Selangor District and Land Office as well as the Environment Department.
The 23,486ha RMFR is part of the 73,392ha North Selangor peat swamp located in the north western part of the state, which also covers the 50,106ha Sungai Karang Forest Reserve.
Water table management is key to ensuring the integrity of a peat forest, and at RMFR, the aim is to keep the water table no lower than 40cm below the ground surface, said Faizal.
If the water table is maintained around 40cm, even if the surface vegetation catches fire, it will not spread into the peat, which then is extremely difficult to put out, he said, adding that during last years drought, the water table dropped to more than 80cm, undoubtedly a result of over 80 days without rain.
The extreme drought last year nationwide saw several parts of the reserve catching fire, after embers from forest fires in adjacent areas were blown onto dry peat within RMFR.
Other than the piping system to draw water, GEC said multi-agency cooperation was vital.
There are many stakeholders involved when it comes to keeping fires away.
For example, we engage major plantation operators such as Sime Darby and Felda, though we find that the smaller landowners are more important as invariably, fires typically start from their land before spreading to the forest reserve, said Faizal.
We intend to increase the number of patrols conducted by villagers who live near the fringe of the forest.
When StarMetro visited the pond over the weekend, there were some disturbing signs that this year would be another high-risk year for peat fires.
At full level, the water from the pond reaches the access road level, but last Saturday, the level was about two metres lower than the road surface, showing that water has either evaporated from the pond or was being drawn for use elsewhere.
It is somewhat unfortunate that this pond is also part of the network of storage ponds for Selangors hybrid off-river augmentation system (Horas) that is meant to top up water levels in Sungai Selangor during extreme drought.
If the current dry spell continues, then it is possible that Selangor may have to make the difficult choice between supplying raw water to the river so that water treatment plants can continue to run, or saving the peat forest.
Nonetheless, Puat has full confidence in the stakeholder engagement as well as the multi-agency effort that also includes the Fire and Rescue Department.
Personally, I think this is an excellent approach, and is one which could also be adopted for other important peatland forests in the state such as the Kuala Langat North and South peat forests.
I dare say that the model practised here is worthy enough to be shared not just to the rest of the country, but the world, he said after presenting some fire fighting equipment at the event to members of Sahabat Hutan Gambut Selangor Utara.