Save our peat swamps

IN the past week, the important role of another lowly and neglected habitat has come to the fore – the peat swamp forest. I am surprised at the palpable lack of appreciation from our elected representatives and policy-makers for the importance of the peat swamp ecosystem. The current controversy about the proposal to develop the Selangor Business Capital project in Kuala Langat Utara by Selangor State Development Corporation is self-evident.

Science has patently established marshes and peatlands are vital for the stability of global climate. Peat swamps could very well be the saviour to stopping the ticking climate bomb facing humanity today. Peat swamps store one-third of the global carbon reserves, and also enormous amounts of the greenhouse gas methane. An acre of peat can contain as much as 2,000 tonnes of carbon. If, or rather when, the average temperature on the earth rises by one centigrade, large amounts of these reserves could be released to the atmosphere. If that happens, the worst case scenario is that it no longer matters what humans do. The climatic changes may have gone out of control. Too late. In practice, by then, our ability to influence the climatic development would have been a foregone conclusion.

Malaysia is left with less than 60% of forest cover. That is about 19.5 million hectares of forests of one type or another. Peat swamp forests constitute a significant component of that forest cover with an estimated 1.54 million hectares still remaining. More than 70% of these peat swamp forests are in Sarawak, less than 20% in Peninsular Malaysia and the remainder in Sabah. Huge tracts of peat swamp forest in Malaysia have already been cleared and drained for human activities.

In 1999, the government initiated a project to conserve its rapidly depleting peat swamp forests with support and funding from the United Nations Development Programme Global Environment Facility in collaboration with the Danish International Development Assistance.

The role of peat swamp forest in relation to climate change has not been totally ignored in Malaysia. In 2008, a brief survey was undertaken by a team from Wetlands International Malaysia on the peat dome north west of Marudi and to the west of the Baram River as part of its project on the ‘‘Status of Peatlands in Malaysia: Its relation to CO2 Emissions and Climate Change’’. 

The acidic environment of peat moss ecosystem is known to support unique species of plants and animals. Research has repeatedly suggested that peat flora found thriving in this kind of ecosystem can contribute significantly in our effort to address climate change issues. The conservation of peat moss, for instance, is of great consequence for a number of reasons. When the peat moss invades new areas, it produces large amounts of hydroxide that makes the environment extremely acidic. Such condition prevents dead matters found in the environment from decomposing. Without decomposition, the carbon remains stored in layers upon layers of dead plants instead of being released to the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide. 

Sphagnum or peat moss grows in wet areas and can gradually fill a size comparable to that of a massive lake. Over years, colossal amount of mosses continually and ultimately sink to the bottom and create peat deposits that act as carbon sink. Hence, draining and burning of peat swamps would only help in releasing increasing amounts of carbon dioxide and methane, the two greenhouse gases primarily blamed for powering global warming. Conservation of these huge areas of carbon sink and methane reserves is thus imperative in saving planet Earth.

Yet we still hear of big plans of destroying and developing on peat swamps in Malaysia. This seems endless with the recent announcement to build Selangor Business Centre in Kuala Langat Utara. Most worrying and of paramount trepidation in all this is the intentional draining of the ecosystem to make way for extensive residential or commercial uses. 

It took human loss and suffering of immense magnitude before we came to realize the importance of oft-neglected and derelict habitats around us. The undersea earthquake of the 26th December 2004 off the coast of Sumatra caused a series of tsunami that unleashed untold damage and destruction on the coastal regions surrounding the Indian Ocean. It was only then that the protective role of coastal mangroves against the destructive forces of tsunami became apparent. Those lowly plants could have saved thousands of lives! Research has now shown that coastlines fringed by mangroves were far less damaged than those where mangroves were absent or had been removed. Mangrove forests shield coastlines by reducing wave amplitude and energy. The mangrove forests, once looked upon as mosquito infested wasteland, are today considered highly worthy of conservation and even replanting in areas where they once thrived.

There is a clear need for our scientific community to understand the effects of climate change on the complex natural systems of our peat swamp forest. Instead of destroying peat swamps we need to conserve and do more research on them. Data on species diversity and ecological distribution of the novel species they harbour would allow us to assess how climate change is likely to affect Malaysia biodiversity as a whole. A prudent management programme needs to be put in place to protect a plethora of unique flora and fauna associated with peat swamp ecosystem. Be mindful that future generations only have us to blame for not having the strength of mind to do something about climate change.

*Professor Dr Ghazally Ismail reads The Malaysian Insight.

* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight. Article may be edited for brevity and clarity.

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