Impact Journalism Day: Public-private effort in Kita-Kyushu jointly develops foam to contain fires in Indonesian peatlands

Impact Journalism Day: Public-private effort in Kita-Kyushu jointly develops foam to contain fires in Indonesian peatlands

20 June 2015

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Indonesia– A foam extinguishing agent to contain forest fires that occur frequently on peatlands in Indonesia has been jointly developed by the city government, a private company and a university in Kita-Kyushu.

They aim to weaken the power of the blazes with the foam, which permeates the soil more easily than water. They will hold a demonstration test in Indonesia in June.

High expectations are placed on the effects of the extinguishing agent, as no effective measures have yet to be found.

Peat is created when remnants of vegetation such as trees and mosses are carbonated without decaying and accumulate over several thousands of years. If the peat catches fire, the fire spreads deeply into the soil, emitting a large amount of carbon dioxide (CO2). Because of that, peat is believed to be not only destroying the ecosystem, but also serving as one of the causes of global warming.

Balikpapan is a city on the eastern coast of Indonesia’s Kalimantan region (Borneo Island) where one of the largest peatlands in the world is located. However, deforestation has been progressing in recent years. Now, large-scale plantations are spreading to produce oil palms that serve as raw materials for palm oil to be used for such products as shampoos and foods.

Plantation developers often burn off forests to secure land because it is easier and less costly than using chemicals to kill noxious insects on the sites. Most of the causes of the forest fires are believed to be from these open burns.

One reason is that there is little water around the forests. Because of that, the only effective method of preventing the spread of fires is to cut down trees in surrounding areas. It is reported that smog from forest fires is polluting the air and presenting a health hazard to people. In particular, the smog may reach neighboring countries, such as Singapore and Malaysia, in the dry season, often developing into international problems.

In 2007, the University of Kitakyushu, the Shabondama Soap Co., based in Kita-Kyushu, and the city government’s Fire and Disaster Management Bureau jointly developed the foam extinguishing agent. According to the city government-run university and other sources, the agent permeates the soil more easily than water and extinguishes fires more effectively. The dried surface of peatlands contains much oxygen. Because of that, they repel water and, as a result, make it difficult for water to reach the peat.

Meanwhile, the foam blocks the supply of oxygen to the peat by covering the surface with foam. Because of that, it can extinguish fires in the layers of peat. The agent can also curb the use of water. In addition, it is presenting a smaller burden on the environment as it is made of ingredients resulting from natural fat and oil.

The development project of the foam extinguishing agent is part of the grass-roots technological efforts of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). The budget for the project is 60 million yen (about $500,000). The project started mainly to prevent fires on peatlands that occur on the upper streams of a lake that is serving as a main source of drinking water for residents in Balikpapan. When fires occur on the peatlands, the surface of the soil flows into the lake, causing deterioration of the water quality.

The project kicked off as a three-year program from fiscal 2013 with the Kitakyushu Foundation for the Advancement of Industry, Science and Technology, which is affiliated with the Kita-Kyushu city government, serving as a coordinator. Participants include the University of Kitakyushu and the city government’s Fire and Disaster Management Bureau.

So far, staff members of the bureau and some other people have looked into on-site fire extinguishing activities in Indonesia and have conducted training to enhance fire prevention awareness.

They have also compiled a manual on how to use the foam extinguishing agent and related equipment, and offered it to the Balikpapan city government.

In June this year, they will hold an on-site test to demonstrate the effectiveness of the agent. In the test, they will burn prepared peat and extinguish the fires with water and foam agents.

Seeing the changes in the temperatures and oxygen concentration of the peat and the remnants of fires that were extinguished, they can quantify how much water the foam can save and how it can more quickly extinguish fires compared to water.

In August, they will show the effectiveness of the foam extinguishing agent in front of the staff members of the Balikpapan city government’s environmental bureau and fire management bureau by spraying it on mock fires. They will also regularly hold training sessions and symposiums to promote the effects of the agent.

“We want to spread the technologies of Kita-Kyushu as an environmentally friendly city,” said Atsuo Makita, an official of the foundation in charge of the issue.

“The project will also lead to the expansion of the sales routes of local companies in overseas markets,” he added.

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