Asean unit to study wild­fires

The Phnom Penh Post - - NATIONAL - Alessan­dro Marazzi Sas­soon and Khouth Sophak Chakrya

THE first ded­i­cated re­search unit for study­ing wild­fires in up­per Asean coun­tries, in­clud­ing Cam­bo­dia, could pro­vide in­valu­able re­search data to help gov­ern­ments ad­dress the is­sue, sci­en­tists and con­ser­va­tion­ists said yes­ter­day.

“There is no ex­ist­ing fo­cus or di­rect re­search cen­ter or spe­cial re­search unit that deals di­rectly with wild­land fires, smoke and haze un­der veg­e­ta­tion types, geo­graphic con­di­tions, weather pat­terns and re­lated hu­man be­hav­iors of main­land South­east Asia,” reads the found­ing state­ment of the Up­per Asean Wild­land Fire Spe­cial Re­search Unit (WFSRU).

Es­tab­lished last month within Thai­land’s Kaset­sart Univer­sity, the unit aims to fill a sig­nif­i­cant gap in the re­gion’s knowl­edge and re­search on wild­fires, for­est fires and their im­pacts on the en­vi­ron­ment and hu­man so­ci­ety and health in Cam­bo­dia, Thai­land, Viet­nam, Laos and Myan­mar.

One of its three founders, Dr Veer­achai Tan­pipat, said the unit’s ac­tiv­i­ties fall un­der the Global Wild­land Fire Net­work, which was man­dated in 2004 by the UN In­ter­na­tional Strat­egy for Dis­as­ter Re­duc­tion.

“It will act as a fo­cal point to pro­vide all nec­es­sary fire, smoke and haze sci­en­tific and man­age­ment knowl­edge to in­ter­ested par­ties,” he said in an email.

Ac­cord­ing to Tan­pipat, the “main pur­pose” of the unit would be to pro­vide gov­ern­ments, like Cam­bo­dia’s, with prac­ti­cal in­for­ma­tion to ad­dress their wild­fire prob­lems.

“Fire is a big is­sue in Cam­bo­dia’s forests,” said Si­mon Ma­hood, a se­nior tech­ni­cal ad­vi­sor for the NGO Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion So­ci­ety.

“We will look for ways to work with [WFSRU] in Cam­bo­dia so that we un­der­stand more about the im­pact of fires and how to pre­vent them,” he added.

NASA satel­lite im­agery from the past decade shows Cam­bo­dia has one of the re­gion’s high­est ob­served num­bers of “hotspots”, or ac­tive fires, which cause sea­sonal haze im­pact­ing health and air qual­ity. The 20152016 fire sea­son saw as many as 1,000 hotspots recorded in a sin­gle day, Forestry Ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials said at the time.

Alarm­ingly, dry con­di­tions at that time also led to un­prece­dented fires in the wet­lands sur­round­ing the Tonle Sap lake, burn­ing some 2,000 square kilo­me­tres, in­clud­ing large por­tions of flooded forests.

Mul­ti­ple En­vi­ron­ment Min­istry of­fi­cials could not be reached yes­ter­day or de­clined to com­ment for this story.

How­ever, Forestry Ad­min­is­tra­tion spokesman Kao Omaliss, while ac­knowl­edg­ing high rates of wild­fires, cat­e­gor­i­cally de­nied for­est fires were a prob­lem. As for the wet­land fires last year, he main­tained that “when we check the satel­lite it looks big, but if we visit on the site of the fire it’s small”, de­spite on­the-ground ob­ser­va­tion by The Post show­ing oth­er­wise.

Still, Omaliss ex­pressed in­ter­est in col­lab­o­rat­ing with the unit. “If they in­vite us to the work­shop we will at­tend.”

NASA

A satel­lite im­age shows fires (red dots) across Cam­bo­dia and sur­round­ing coun­tries in Fe­bru­ary last year.

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