Wetlands on Fire
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(3 October 1997)
Statement issued by the Standing Committee of the
Ramsar Convention on Wetlands
(2 October 1997, Gland, Switzerland)
Wetlands on Fire
Up to 70 million people in six Southeast Asian countries have been affected in recent weeks by the thick smoke which has blanketed the region as a result of large scale, uncontrolled forest fires in tropical peatlands. And it doesn't end there.
Experts predict that the long-term impacts of this incident, which is being billed as "one of the world's greatest man-made environmental catastrophes", potentially more threatening than the Gulf War oil fires in Kuwait, will extend well beyond the realms of human health and well-being. These fires threaten a wealth of ecological resources and the socio-economic structure of settlements in the region, through decreased forest productivity and decline in food production. A whole range of industries from tourism to electronics and palm oil production may also suffer.
The 27 countries from all regions of the world and 4 global NGOs gathered in Switzerland for the annual meeting of the Standing Committee of the Convention on Wetlands (Ramsar, Iran, 1971) have expressed their grave concern at this disaster. Mrs Louise Lakos, Chairperson of the Standing Committee, noted, "The members of this international conservation body drew attention to the fact that a large proportion of the area burning is peat swamp forest, which constitutes an important global wetland type which we cannot afford to lose. Time is short and action is needed urgently."
Peat swamp forests are waterlogged forests growing on a layer of dead leaves and plant material, up to 20 meters thick. Their continued survival depends on a naturally high water level which prevents the soil from drying out to expose combustible peat matter. Peat swamp forests provide a variety of goods and services, both directly and indirectly, in the form of forestry and fisheries products, energy, flood mitigation, water supply and groundwater recharge.
The countries of Southeast Asia, in particular Malaysia and Indonesia, have more than 20 million hectares or 60% of the global resource of tropical peatlands. Initial estimates indicate that the fires have spread to forests covering 800,000 hectares of peatlands. Fires in these peatlands are unique in that they create many times more smoke per hectare than other forest types, and they are almost impossible to extinguish without restoring the naturally high water levels in these swamps. The fires go deep underground and can burn uncontrolled and unseen in the peat deposits for several months on end.
In the past 10 years, there has been an increasing incidence of major fires in the peat swamp forests of the Southeast Asian region. In East Kalimantan, Indonesia, one fire which started in September 1982 lasted for 10 months and affected more than 35,000 hectares. This 1982 fire followed an almost unprecedented period of drought in the region associated with "El Nino", the same climatic event which is being blamed for the severity of the present situation.
The contribution of tropical peatlands to the global carbon cycle is higher than those of most of the temperate zones: 15% of the global peatland carbon may reside in tropical peatlands. These prolonged peat fires are releasing a massive amount of carbon dioxide and particulate matter and contributing to global warming and long-term climate disruption.
The Convention on Wetlands, commonly known as the Ramsar Convention, is a global intergovernmental treaty on conservation and the wise use of wetland resources. It has 103 member countries world wide and provides the framework for international cooperation on wetland issues.
The Convention promotes the concept of the "wise use" of wetlands, which is an ecosystem-based approach to natural resource management. This approach is echoed in the ASEAN (Association of South-east Asian Nations) Agreement on the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources established in 1985. Among the elements of the Agreement is a call for the establishment of regimes for preservation of vegetation cover and for the management of forest resources.
The Ramsar Convention recognises that the sound management of water resources and peat swamp forested wetlands is of critical importance in the development of countries in Southeast Asia and to the conservation of biological diversity globally.
Mrs Lakos commended the governments concerned, and the global community, for the prompt actions they have taken to address this problem in the spirit of international cooperation. She noted that the Standing Committee of the Ramsar Convention strongly believes that the following actions need to be undertaken to address the immediate and long-term effects of these fires:
- a concerted global effort to put out the fires;
- an assessment of the short and longer term economic, social and environmental impacts of this disaster;
- a critical review of all current practices and proposed development initiatives in tropical peat swamp forests in the countries of the region;
- the development and implementation of integrated management plans for peat swamp forests, which take into account the varying ecological, physical and socio-economic functions and resources they provide;
- the inclusion of more peat swamp forest sites in existing protected areas systems, and the designation of additional peat swamp forest sites to the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance.
Mr Delmar Blasco, Secretary General of the Convention, noted that "The Ramsar Convention provides the framework for a concerted global effort to effectively address this problem." He called for :
- Contracting Parties to the Ramsar Convention that have experience in peat swamp fire control and management to offer their technical and financial assistance to the affected countries on an urgent basis.
- Representatives of the Ramsar partner organisations in the non-government and private sector in the region to provide technical support to the affected countries.
- Cooperation with the Framework Convention on Climate Change to address the regional and global climatic impacts of these fires.
- A special session to address the issue of the management of peat swamp forests to be convened during the Asian Ramsar Convention Regional Meeting, scheduled to be held in Malaysia from 25-29 November 1997.