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

Project Details


Indonesia’s Central Kalimantan province on the island of Borneo is home to Asia’s most extensive tropical peatlands, which store vast amounts of carbon and deliver numerous important ecosystem services to local people, including maintaining air and water quality, providing timber and non-timber forest resources, and supporting fish populations for local consumption. In dry years, widespread wild fires in these peatlands burn for months with huge impacts locally, regionally and globally: e.g. in 2015, an estimated 100,000 premature deaths due to exposure to smoke haze, die-offs of river fish that people rely on for food, major economic disruption with a cost of $16.1Bn to the Indonesian economy and huge, globally significant carbon emissions. This major disaster is attributed to the drought caused by the extreme El Niño climate event of 2015 and there is a strong correlation between dry season rainfall and number of fire hotspots. This is particularly concerning because such extreme events are predicted to increase in frequency under global warming and there is a general trend of reduced rainfall in Borneo over recent decades.
However, drought alone does not cause fire. In their intact natural waterlogged state these peatlands rarely burn and the fires are concentrated in extensive areas that have dried out to various degrees due to deforestation and deliberate or accidental drainage for agriculture and timber extraction. Moreover, the wild fires do not start naturally but are invariably ignited by humans to clear agricultural land, and for various other reasons, and then often burn out of control. Satellite data indicate as many as 39,000 fire hot spots in Central Kalimantan peatlands in 2015. Thus the drivers behind the wild fires are a combination of climatic processes, a legacy of historic land use impacts that provide suitable fire fuels, and human behaviours that produce ignition sources.
The resulting impacts of drought and associated fire are significant and widespread but not well documented and not always well understood (e.g. human health impacts, fish die-offs). However, in theory at least, drought-associated peatland fires and their impacts are largely preventable and there is therefore a real opportunity to achieve a major reduction in the multiple hazards associated with drought in this region into the future.

Figure 1. Overview of the interconnectivity of the multidisciplinary objectives in this project
We therefore propose an integrated, multidisciplinary project with three core aims (Figure 1):
1. Obtain a better understanding of the DRIVERS behind the multiple drought and fire associated hazards and their spatial distribution.

2. Characterise the multiple, cumulative IMPACTS of drought and fire and the biophysical and human behavioural chains leading to them, and identify the population groups/communities most vulnerable to these hazards.

3. Identify priority actions and policies for work to build RESILIENCE: 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.
We will focus our work on a large, heavily fire-affected region in the south of Central Kalimantan province, Borneo. This includes the 1.5Mha ‘Ex Mega Rice Project’ (Ex-MRP) area which was first cleared as part of a failed agricultural development project in 1995, since when it has become the epicentre of peatland fires in the province.
Adjacent to the Ex-MRP, to the west, lies the ~600,000ha Sebangau National Park which retains a cover of relatively intact peat swamp forest and hence provides a strong near-natural reference (although it too is vulnerable to fires due to drainage through canals left by previous logging operations and fire use by fishers).
To the north lies a similar area of largely intact but unprotected and increasingly fragmented forest, much of which is designated for conversion to oil palm and Acacia plantations.
The focal area includes the provincial capital Palangka Raya with an urban population of 300,000 situated on one of the main rivers in the watershed. In the rural areas, the Ex-MRP is populated by approximately 75,000 Javanese migrants most of whom were resettled there under Indonesia’s Transmigration policy, while the indigenous Dayak people mostly live in villages along the major rivers. All these population groups are strongly affected by drought-fire multihazards and in are varying degrees involved in their occurrence.
Building on round-table discussions at a workshop at University of Exeter in 2017, involving Indonesian stakeholders and scientists as well as UK natural and social scientists, we have identified 3-4 specific objectives associated with each of the core aims (see above) requiring research in a wide range of natural science and social science disciplines. We set these out below, grouped by the core aims, rather than by discipline.
Proposed research on DRIVERS
Four key elements:
 Objective 1.1: Effective prediction of drought
 Objective 1.2: Antecedent biophysical conditions associated with fire risk
 Objective 1.3: Human dimensions of fire risk
 Objective 1.4: Political–Economic dimensions of human–environment interaction
Short titleKalimantan Lestari
Effective start/end date1/05/2031/12/23