Drought and peatland fires in Indonesian Borneo: Understanding drivers and impacts to build resilience through sustainable development

Lead Research Organisation: University of Exeter
Department Name: Biosciences


Indonesia's Central Kalimantan province on the island of Borneo is home to extensive peatlands. In dry years such as 2015, peat fires burn for months with huge impacts: Exposure to smoke during this period is expected to cause 100,000 premature deaths, caused major economic disruption with a cost of $16.1Bn to the Indonesian economy and, for three months, emitted more carbon than the entire EU. Indonesia's peatland fires were described as 2015's 'worst environmental disaster' (Guardian, 2015) with Central Kalimantan at the epicentre. The majority of fires in this region are started
deliberately, primarily to clear forest for small or large-scale agriculture (satellite data indicates that there were close to 40,000 fire hot spots in C. Kalimantan peatlands in 2015), but their frequency, duration and severity are strongly climate linked and facilitated by El Niño droughts, which may become more frequent under global warming. In their intact natural waterlogged, forested state these peatlands rarely burn, therefore fires are concentrated in the (extensive) areas that have dried to some degree due to deforestation and drainage for agriculture and timber extraction. Here, smouldering fires burn down into the underlying peat, can burn for months and are the primary cause of near annual air pollution events affecting SE Asia, which were particularly severe during 2015. Thus the drivers behind the peatland fires are a combination of climatic processes, a legacy of historic land use impacts that ensure a high fuel load, and human activities that provide ignition sources. The resulting huge impacts are, therefore, to a large extent preventable but effective action requires a more detailed understanding of future climate-associated risk, biophysical and socio-economic conditions and human behaviours.

We propose an integrated, multidisciplinary project with three core aims:
1) To better understand the drivers behind the multiple drought- and fire-associated hazards and their spatial distribution in the peatlands of Central Kalimantan Province, Indonesian Borneo
2) To characterise the multiple, cumulative impacts of drought and the biophysical and human behavioural chains leading to them, and identify the population groups/communities most vulnerable to these hazards.
3) Combining information from 1 and 2, identify priority actions and policies for work to reduce the risk of fire and identify the socio-cultural, agro-ecological, physical and economic hurdles to achieving positive outcomes from their implementation within the context of sustainable development that leads to better environmental and socio-economic circumstances for all.

The ultimate aim of this project is to build long term resilience to the multiple hazards associated with drought and fire in Central Kalimantan's peatlands by developing the knowledge, tools and capacity to reduce the current co-drivers (e.g. human land uses) and also to plan ahead for when circumstances (climate, land use) change in the future. Fully understanding the human costs can guide the appropriate action to take to minimise the impacts when a disaster does occur. Our proposed research on building resilience emphasises the need to do this in the context of sustainable development and building positive economic opportunities that will incentivise stakeholders. To ensure the research achieves the maximum impact, the consortium partners include Indonesian government agencies and departments, an NGO with extensive experience of engaging rural communities in the region and equal partnerships between UK and Indonesian universities to develop local research capacity through collaboration and training.

Planned Impact

Our ultimate project aim is to build long term resilience to the multiple hazards associated with drought in Central Kalimantan's peatlands by developing the knowledge, tools and capacity to reduce the current co-drivers of drought- associated fire and also for future circumstances when climate and land use change. Our proposal is designed to evaluate the interactions between human activity and climatic extremes in this critically sensitive region; to evaluate the short and longer-term impacts of peat fires in our study location; and to use knowledge of drivers and risk chains to build resilience to the risks from the multihazards associated with droughts and fires. The focus of our project on both forested and agricultural peat landscapes will result in outcomes with direct implications for ecosystem and biodiversity protection, improved local livelihoods and human health and well-being. Our results will provide a basis for improved peatland management for poverty alleviation and socioeconomic development, and will provide a model for increasing ecological and human resilience to future El Niño events across SE Asia.
Below we briefly explain our pathways to impact for the three key groups of stakeholders
- Indonesian government agencies and departments have been involved in developing this project from the start (2017 workshop at University of Exeter) and will be closely involved in its delivery. The key stakeholder in this respect is the Peatland Restoration Agency (BRG) and our proposed resilience research closely follows the structure of their strategy. The BRG was established in response to the 2015 fires by President Widodo with a 5-year mandate, which ends December 2020. The current expectation is that with the recent re-election of President Widodo, the BRG will either be granted another 5-year term or will be incorporated in the Ministry of Environment and Forestry. Regardless of this, we will continue working with the relevant administrative entities, including consulting with these agencies at all project stages, involving them in decision-making committees and providing summary reports for
policy makers.
- Much of our research involves gathering information from and about rural communities. These same communities are also essential for achieving resilience to future drought. It is essential that these communities understand the link between current practices and the negative health and wellbeing impacts they suffer from the fires, as well as the economic opportunities associated with building resilience. Project partners Borneo Nature Foundation have a highly experienced local Community Development & Education team who will manage effective engagement with these stakeholders.
- We aim to develop the capacity of the Indonesian research community through close collaboration and training. In planning this proposal we have budgeted for equal numbers of UK and Indonesian post docs and research assistants to foster co-development of research at all career levels. Most of the research will be carried out in Indonesia with exception of climate modelling and water chemistry analysis, which requires specialised and expensive facilities only available in the UK. In those cases, we plan for Indonesian researchers to spend a period working and training in the UK.