Experts Warn About Species Extinction And Land Subsidence At People For Peat’s Peat Water Management Symposium
Apr 28, 2022 by Irene Chooi
KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA: The ground beneath our feet is slowly sinking due to deforestation and peatland drainage. The People for Peat (PFP) coalition’s first symposium of its 2022 Regional Peat Symposium series came with a dire warning from experts about species extinction and land subsidence.
The virtual Peat Water Management conference on 27th April 2022 had participants glued to their seats as experts in the field of fish conservation and land subsidence shared their decades of knowledge over the two-hour online gathering. The takeaway message was that the unplanned development of peatlands is destroying natural habitats and causing the extinction of certain species, as well as leading to an average subsidence rate of 3.5cm per year in drained peatlands which will eventually result in the loss of massive coastal land areas, many of which are currently inhabited by the poorest demographics.
“Sea level rise is happening and the projections of subsidence are increasingly alarming. Southeast Asia has the highest coastal subsidence and peatlands in this region may mostly flood because their base is around mid-sea level,” warned Dr Ronald Vernimmen, the director of Data for Sustainability and a speaker at the symposium, who was drawing from his research, “Global LiDAR land elevation data reveal greatest sea-level rise vulnerability in the tropics”.
His research co-author, Dr. Aljosja Hooijer, who is also a specialist advisor with Deltares and research professor at the National University of Singapore, adds there is no time to lose when it comes to protecting peatlands, “A peatland’s wetness is a very delicately balanced system that has evolved over thousands of years. The flooding that you get after subsidence is blanket flooding by river water. It just becomes part of the river floodplain and many things don’t grow properly on that. In the longer term, it will become salty and you have effectively lost the land. You have gained a coastline. It’s not a doom scenario, it’s a very realistic scenario of what’s going to happen in Southeast Asia.”
In fact, examples of this have already been seen in peatlands in Malaysia, especially in Johor and Sarawak which have been converted into plantations. Plantations covered 6% of the Rajang Delta peatlands in 2000. But by 2014, it rose to 47%. Elevation data obtained from satellite imagery shows the area is now considered drained and subsiding.
Citizen scientist and ‘village style’ Ichthyologist, Mohd Ilham Norhakim Lokman, who also authored of Fishes of North Selangor Peat Swamp Forest, in turn pointed out peatland degradation poses a severe threat to biodiversity. “Peat swamp forests are like the earth’s sponge. If we don’t protect them, floods will worsen and certain fish species like the Betta Persephone will go extinct. 20 years ago, there were 3 primary habitats for Betta Persephone but with the increased destruction of peat swamp forests, now it can only be found in Hutan Taman Negeri Ayer Hitam Utara (AHU) in Muar, Johor.”
While their areas of expertise differed, all three experts agreed that urgent action needs to be taken to conserve these delicate ecosystems, starting with banning new development on peatlands and creating a buffer zone between the existing forested areas.
Dr. Aljosja rounded out the session with this uplifting message and call to action, “Although a lot of peatlands have been drained and lost, the deepest peatlands - the earth’s greatest carbon resources - and also a lot of forest, still exist. If we protect those areas, or even just 25% of the original peatland areas, we would have salvaged more than 50%, maybe 75% of the remaining carbon and you’ve salvaged those peatland ecosystems.”
PFP plans to continue educating non-state actors on how to live sustainably on peat and advocate for this critical ecosystem in our second symposium of this series themed Livelihoods on Peat on 18th May 2022. Register for the symposium here.
For more on our recently announced 2022 PFP ASEAN Peatland Photo Contest, click here.
For more information about our 2022 Virtual Regional Symposium series, click here.
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