Setting the scene
In September 1997, the airports of Singapore and Kuala Lumpur shut down for several days. Fires from drained peatlands in Indonesia, over 1000 km away, were emitting vast clouds of smoke causing haze and poor visibility across large parts of South East Asia in the extremely dry El Niño year. Schools and businesses had to close, and people were admitted to hospitals with acute breathing problems. The amount of CO2 emitted from these fires was equivalent to 13–40% of annual global emissions from fossil fuels (Page et al. 2002). Economic losses due to the 1997–1998 wildfires exceeded several billion US dollars (ADB 1999).
In the hot August of 2010, people in Moscow were advised to stay at home, keep their windows closed and wear gauze masks to avoid inhaling ash particles when walking on the streets. Again the cause was fires, this time raging across nearly 2000 km2 of degraded peatlands in Russia. Carbon monoxide levels in the capital reached six times the maximum acceptable levels and death rates doubled due to heat and smog (Barriopedro et al. 2011).
These fires, resulting from peatland drainage and degradation that made them vulnerable to fire, dramatically highlight the huge liability that peatlands pose once degraded, especially in a changing climate. In sharp contrast, there is now wide recognition of the importance to human well-being of ecosystem services delivered by the peatland environment, not least the wildlife that underpins those ecosystem services. While peatlands cover not even 3% of the world’s surface, they hold two times more carbon than the entire global forest biomass pool, and represent more than 30% of the total global soil carbon store (see Chapter 4). As long-term carbon sinks, they provide crucial global climate-regulating services. If not safeguarded, however, the release of this carbon could further exacerbate climate change.
The range of peatland ecosystem services is far greater than simply their role in the carbon cycle. Pivotal peatland ecosystem services further include, for example, the provision of high-quality drinking water derived from peatland catchments. Peatlands also play a role in flood-water regulation, especially in lowland or coastal settings.