Soap maker finds cleaner way to fight southeast Asia wildfires

Soap maker finds cleaner way to fight southeast Asia wildfires

02 January 2017

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Singapore — KITAKYUSHU, Japan — A Japanese soap company has developed a fire-extinguishing agent that is both powerful and easy on the environment. It is looking to market the product in Southeast Asia and other places prone to forest fires.

Indonesia and neighboring countries are plagued by fires every year around September, after the dry season. The blazes are blamed mainly on slash-and-burn clearing of land for farming. Indonesia is particularly susceptible because it has vast peatlands: Once they catch fire, they can continue to smolder underground even after the battle appears to have been won.

The problem is said to have worsened in the 1990s, as the expansion of agricultural irrigation systems has dried out the peatlands. 2015 was the worst year since 1997, with the scope of the wildfires growing beyond Borneo and Sumatra to nearby islands. The resulting haze forced state-run airline Garuda Indonesia to cancel over 400 flights; in Singapore and Malaysia, elementary and junior high schools were shut down.

Enter Shabondama Soap. The soap maker in the southern Japanese city of Kitakyushu worked with the municipal Fire and Disaster Management Bureau and researchers at the University of Kitakyushu to develop a new foam agent.

The company is known for additive-free soaps made from natural materials such as animal fat, vegetable oil and caustic soda. It used this know-how in developing the fire-extinguishing agent, which is touted as environmentally friendly and capable of controlling blazes with less water.

The concoction was tested in Palangkaraya, in the Indonesian portion of Borneo, in September 2015. Foam infused with the agent was sprayed on burning land. Just 3.6 liters of water were used per square meter — half the amount needed in a comparison test without the agent.

Researchers subsequently found that, 10 months later, the charred ground hit with the agent was covered in lush greenery.

Takayoshi Kawahara, who heads Shabondama Soap’s research and development department, said the test in Indonesia proved the soap-based agent “can extinguish peatland fires, which are hard to control, with less water, and that it affects the environment less where it was splashed.”

“We are sure we can develop a wider market for the agent in countries other than Indonesia where forest fires are a major problem,” Kawahara added.

From buildings to brush fires

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