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Russia’s fires: worsened by peatland drainage


August 4, 2010. The disastrous forest fires that are currently raging in Russia have led to significant fires in the drained and degraded peatlands. These occur close to Moscow and densely populated areas in Central European Russia. They are causing huge air pollution problems as well as direct risks for the people in the region.

Next to todays 520 forest fires in Russia, there are also 24 peat fires taking place; many of them around Moscow (source: Emergency Ministry August 4 2010; numbers change from day to day).
These peat areas are extremely fire prone due to drainage for peat mining in the past and abandonment since the beginning of the 1990’s. Wetlands International advocates for restoration and better management of Russia’s peatlands. This is the only effective way to prevent and minimise the fire risk.

Drainage for peat mining leads to annual fires
Until 1980, Russia was responsible for almost 90% of peat used for energy in the world, but since increase of use of oil and gas in the energy sector this has largely stopped. Many of the partly mined peatsoils were left unmanaged and drained, making them extremely vulnerable to fires.

For this reason peatland fires in Russia take place almost every year in several regions with most of this in abandoned areas. In areas where active management takes place, such fires are rare. This year the peat fires have spread wider to other regions due to the extreme drought conditions. The fires in the immediate vicinity of large cities like Moscow have increased the consciousness of the problems rapidly and the issue has now caught the attention of decision makers at all levels.

Massive CO2 emissions
Drainage of peatlands and peat fires cause large CO2 emissions annually (source: Global Peatland CO2 Picture). The peat carbon, which has accumulated over thousands of years and is normally conserved under water, is suddenly exposed to the air by drainage and then rapidly turns into carbon dioxide (CO2) that is released into the atmosphere. 

Urgent need for rewetting Russia’s peatlands

The current situation pushes Russia’s authorities to increase its investments in peatland rewetting for anti-fire. Peatland rewetting will not only prevent future fires, but also benefit biodiversity conservation, and make an important contribution to climate change mitigation as large CO2 emissions can be reduced.

Russia has until now invested in peatland rewetting only on a project basis. The most impressive rewetting project is in the National Park Meschera in the Vladimir province, where 2000 ha of degraded peatland is being rewetted. This activity, supported by Wetlands International since 2002 has provided essential knowledge on the scientific, practical and socio-economic aspects of peatland rewetting.

Currently Wetlands International Russia works as part of the International Climate Initiative of BMU (Federal Ministry of the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety of Germany), together with the University of Greifswald, Succow Foundation and the Institute of Forest Science of the Russian Academy of Sciences on a Decision Support System to support the Russian authorities to identify the most efficient and urgent areas for rewetting.

Peatland rewetting should be supported under the Climate Convention

Tatiana Minaeva of Wetlands International in Russia: “Due to the increasing instability of the climate the peat fires will occur more regularly. It is time to bring attention to the urgent need to rewet degraded peatlands. The Parties of the Climate Change Convention should consider that peat fires will be accelerated by climate change and these on their turn will cause large CO2 emissions into the atmosphere and accelerate climate change”.

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