Indonesian soldiers digging canals in fire-prone Kalimantan

An official giving masks to Kapuas regency residents (from left) Mastika, her granddaughter Mutiara Lestari, neighbour Masita and her daughter Amelia Putri, and Mutiara's mother Mahrita.
An official giving masks to Kapuas regency residents (from left) Mastika, her granddaughter Mutiara Lestari, neighbour Masita and her daughter Amelia Putri, and Mutiara's mother Mahrita.ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

Thirteen excavators are spread out in the Jabiren Raya area in the Pulang Pisau regency, the most fire-prone spot in Central Kalimantan province.

About 300 soldiers were deployed there last Saturday, with a mission to dig canals to keep moisture in the otherwise dry peatlands.

A partly completed 7km main canal along the Trans Kalimantan road is connected to the nearby Kahayan river.

The main canal will then be connected to 28 canals that run 300m into wild bush. At the end of each of these 28 canals, a 4m-deep water storage reservoir will be built.

"The canals will help wet the peatland, while the 'embung' (water storage dams) are the source of water to use to douse fire if fire still emerges," Major Slamet Riyadi, commander of the canal building project, told The Straits Times.

When completed, this project will have two 7km main canals that could help to keep moisture in 350ha of peatlands.

The main canals are 3m wide and 4m deep.

"We hope to complete all this in the next seven to 10 days. It's 30 per cent completed," Major Slamet said.

Working on the sponge-like peatland is not easy. Coconut tree trunks are used as pavement material for the excavator, and a dozen soldiers have to constantly move the tree trunks from behind the excavator to the front as the heavy equipment moves forward.

One of the 13 excavators has become trapped in the peatland and will have to be pulled out.

"We have managed to wet the peatlands here quite a bit and therefore controlled the fire," Major Slamet said.

Indonesia is stepping up its efforts to fight the fires raging in Kalimantan and Sumatra, as well as to put in place a system that will help to prevent forest fires.

President Joko Widodo has said land and forest fire is an engineering problem, and has instructed the military and Public Works Ministry to help dig canals to retain moisture in the peatlands during the dry season.

But the vast lands in Kalimantan and Sumatra are huge challenges. Until projects such as the one in Pulang Pisau can be replicated in other fire-prone areas, fires will remain an annual threat.

About 60km west of Pulang Pisau in Maluen village, in the neighbouring Kapuas regency, 60 firefighters were seen rushing into the woods, about 150m from the Trans Kalimantan road.

"Fire is approaching," a firefighter shouted to this reporter as he ran into the woods to join the other crew members.

The closest house to the approaching fire is only about 100m away.

"We are worried of course. But what can we do? Thank God firefighters are coming," said Ms Mastika, 61, who lives in the house with her daughter and two grandchildren.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 01, 2015, with the headline 'Indonesian soldiers digging canals in fire-prone Kalimantan'. Print Edition | Subscribe