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The degradation of peatlands from logging, drainage or fires in South-East Asia is a huge yet neglected source of carbon dioxide emissions, the main gas responsible for climate change, warns a new report.

It is therefore crucial that these emissions be included in strategies to tackle climate change, says the report released by Wetlands International at the UN climate talks currently underway in Nairobi, Kenya.

Peatlands — rich densely packed soils made up of dead organic matter, mainly plants — are known as 'carbon sinks' for their ability to store more carbon per unit area than any other ecosystem.

Although they occupy only 3-5 per cent of the earth's land and fresh water surface, they absorb 25-30 per cent of the world's carbon dioxide, helping to reduce the amount of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere.

But human activities are fast destroying the peatlands, causing them to oxidise, decompose and release carbon dioxide.

"Annually, in Indonesia alone 2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide is emitted from the peatlands; 600 million tonnes is caused by oxidation from drainage and 1.4 billion tonnes is caused by fires," says wetlands researcher Faizal Parish who directs the Global Environment Centre, in Selangor, Malaysia.

Indonesia emits 6.5 times as much carbon dioxide from degraded peatlands as it does by burning fossil fuels each year. Of the 21 million hectares of peatland in Indonesia 9 million are drained, decomposing or burning.

The report blames the degradation on improper land use accompanied by poor water management. By draining the peatlands, farmers are exposing them to recurrent fires, which are key contributors to climate change.

"Drainage starts a rapid process of decomposition, made worse by annual peat fires that last for months," Marcel Silvius of Wetlands International told SciDev.Net.

"Together these contribute large amounts of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere."

The problem can be easily confronted, and at little cost, says the report. For instance it suggests setting up a global fund that would pay local people for restoring and conserving the peatlands.

On a global level, it is essential that the Kyoto Protocol, which is limited to emissions caused by industry, housing, traffic and agriculture, includes emissions from soil and degraded vegetation.

The report comes as 10 environment ministers from the Association of South East Asian Nations, who met last weekend in the Philippines, pressed Indonesia to curb its peat fires.