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Restore Burned-Out Peatlands, ‘Save Billions Of Dollars’

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Restoration of Indonesian peatlands burned out by fires between 2004 and 2015 could have led to savings worth US$8.4 billion, making it a cost-effective strategy to reduce the effects of peatland fires on the environment, climate and human health, according to a new study.

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Peatlands refer to naturally accumulated soil-like deposits of partly decomposed vegetable matter. They cover 27.1 million hectares in South-East Asia, including more than 22.5 million hectares in Indonesia alone, according to the University of Leicester, in central England.

Fires in 2015 scorched 2.6 million hectares across the archipelago and produced toxic haze over Singapore and Malaysia, causing thousands to fall ill. The Indonesian government suffered economic losses worth US$16 billion as a result, according to the World Bank.

Published this month in Nature Communications, the study says peatland fires release carbon dioxide which contributes significantly to greenhouse gas emissions in Indonesia. The fires also emit substantial amounts of PM 2.5 (pollutant particles measuring 2.5 microns or smaller) and other air pollutants responsible for poor air quality and adverse effects on health.

When fire damages agricultural land and forest resources, the resultant haze disrupts transport, tourism and trade, leading to a slowdown in the region’s economic performance, the researchers said. The Indonesian government has committed to restoring 2.49 million hectares of degraded peatland at an estimated cost of US$3.2 billion to US$7 billion, they added.

The researchers combined land cover data and fire emissions data from the 2015 fires in Indonesia (the country’s largest recent fire event) which led to a financial loss of US$28 billion. They also evaluated the six largest fire events in the country between 2004 and 2015 which resulted in a financial loss of US$93.9 billion.

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If that restoration had already been completed, the area burned in 2015 would have been reduced by six per cent and there would have been a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions of 18 per cent and in PM 2.5 of 24 per cent, preventing 12,000 premature deaths, the study said.

“In this study we show that peatland restoration can be an effective and cost- effective way of reducing fires, and therefore has multiple benefits,” said study author Laura Kiely, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of California, in Riverside, US. “We hope that these findings will support current peatland restoration plans and encourage continued and more ambitious peatland restoration,” she told SciDev.Net.

Riina Jalonen, a scientist at the Bioversity International, Malaysia, told SciDev.Net that, “[Peatland] restoration is made difficult by the fact that the allocation of costs and benefits is uneven, and the realities of the landowners and land users often contrast with the needs and interests of those affected by haze, at least in the short term.”

“Peatlands can be restored by blocking drainage canals to re-wet the peat and planting trees to revegetate the landscape,” said a press release relating to the study by the University of Leeds, UK. “A moratorium on any new land conversion on peatland was brought into effect in Indonesia in 2011, and in 2016 thePeatland Restoration Agencywas established to restore and re-wet 2.49 million hectares of degraded peatland.”

*Sanjeet Bagcchi, A private medical practitioner with extensive writing experience, including for the British Medical Journal, Lancet, Canadian Medical Association Journal, Plos Biology, The Telegraph, Nature India, among others.

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Asia & Pacific desk.

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