Most of Malaysia’s peatland comprises peat swamp forest, which is said to be a critically endangered category of forested wetlands, and is usually located in coastal areas in all states except Kedah, Penang and Perlis.
Permanently waterlogged, these peat swamp forests are made up of layers of peat soil and water so acidic that many of the plants and animals that manage to survive in these places do not occur anywhere else in Asia.
Considered to be the most highly threatened of Malaysia’s forests and wetlands, peat swamp forests here are home to threatened animal species like the orang utan (Pongo pygmaeus), the proboscis monkey (Nasalis larvatus), and the endangered false gharial (Tomistoma schlegelii), as well as various types of freshwater fish.
Besides acting as a carbon sink, peatland in Malaysia plays an important role in preserving our water supply, preventing seawater intrusion into fresh water sources and the water table, regulating and reducing floods, and providing fish, timber and other resources for local communities.
According to Wetlands International, in Malaysia, as a general rule, the water table below the surface of the peat must be 20cm-30cm or higher to prevent it from drying out, decomposing and subsequently releasing carbon dioxide.
Dry peatland is extremely flammable, with 90% of the fires that cause the annual haze in Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore stemming from dried out peatland catching fire.
A study in 2002 estimated that Indonesian peatland fires in 1997 and 1998 engulfed between 1.8 million and 2.2 million hectares of peat and released between 3,000 and 9,400 megatonnes of CO2. This was equivalent to between 13% and 40% of average annual global CO2 emissions, resulting in the largest annual increase in atmospheric CO2 concentrations since records began in 1957.
The World Bank estimated that the total economic costs of Indonesia’s fires in 2015 to be more than US$16bil (RM65.4bil) – equivalent to 1.8% of the country’s GDP. While some of the costs were losses from crops, forests and infrastructure, much of the economic fallout was also from the disruption to travel services and tourism.
There are various ways that dry peatland can be rehabilitated:
Replanting, especially local species of flora, can keep peatland wet. This can also help improve the biodiversity of peatland, which in turn encourages restoration, creating a virtuous cycle.
In parts of Indonesia, there are projects to plant degraded peatland with the jelutung tree (Dyera polyphylla) from which latex can be tapped commercially for use in chewing gum, insulation and tubing.
One way to re-wet dried peatland is by blocking the drains or canals that are channelling the water out; another is to install dams. This will help raise the water table.
Besides replanting, the Raja Musa Forest Reserve in Selangor was rehabilitated by blocking abandoned canals that had been dug to float out felled timber using sand bags and fallen logs.
Some experts advocate paludiculture, which is crop production in wet soil, to prevent peatland from being drained of its water for agriculture.
Encouraging local communities to switch to cultivating water- and flood-tolerant crops like sago palm and swamp taro will hopefully stop small croppers from draining peatland and drying it out.
Information sourced from the World Economic Forum, Global Environment Centre, Wetlands International and Wikipedia.