Fighting peat fires with technology

Izah Azahari

Assistant Professor at the Universiti Teknologi Brunei (UTB) Dr Wida Susanty binti Haji Suhaili recently became the national finalist for Brunei Darussalam in the 2020 ASEAN-US Science Prize for Women themed ‘Preventive Healthcare’ for her work stopping forest fires, alongside nine other national finalists from ASEAN member countries.

In an interview with the Borneo Bulletin, Dr Wida Susanty shared that she started her research on peatland in 2016, a year after she completed her PhD at the University of Edinburgh. Transitioning from her PhD area on Education Technology, she said that at the time the Internet of Things (IoT) started to get noticed and UTB had only started to do research in the area.

“I started my research on the IoT as I worked with School of Computing, where my focus is more on Computer Network and Security (CNS),” she said.

When she initially ventured into the research project on Peatland, the term IoT was not coined yet and was more known as Wireless Sensor Network with the use of sensors to detect without wires to collect data.

“When a peatland catches fire it is different from a normal forest fire because it releases carbon,” said Dr Wida Susanty. “When this occurred in 1995, everything closed down; children couldn’t go to school because of the smoke. It really affects the economy, health of the people and everyday activities.”

File photo of peatland in Kalimantan
Assistant Professor at the Universiti Teknologi Brunei (UTB) Dr Wida Susanty binti Haji Suhaili. PHOTO: RAHWANI ZAHARI
Dr Wida Susanty focussing on the research project. PHOTO: UTB

She also referred to the most recent fire in Indonesia that affected several neighbouring countries including Brunei, and said if it is not controlled in the first place it can get to a really bad level.

Motivated by her CNS background, Dr Wida Susanty felt the need to understand the peatland and talked to stakeholders. She also engaged an individual at Universiti Brunei Darussalam (UBD) which then led her to conncet with the Forestry Department, Heart of Borneo (HoB), and the Department of Environment, Parks and Recreation (JASTRe), where the research then turned into a Final Year Project (FYP). Since 2016 the project has been evolving.

In 2015, Dr Wida Susanty said there was a call for proposal from the ICT Virtual Organisation of ASEAN Institutes and NICT (ASEAN IVO) in Japan where she had the opportunity to collaborate on a regional project with experts from Malaysia, Indonesia and Japan.

She shared that Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia and Japan are looking into a project called the Networked ASEAN Peat Swamp Forest Communities (NAPC) concerning trans-boundary haze.

Brunei, although a small country, also contributes to the NAPC because a big portion of the Sultanate is covered in peatland. The contributions started off through lab-based research of making small sensors that were connected together, but never tested in the real environment, which then evolved to securing more devices with the funding from NAPC.

“In Brunei, in terms of disaster management, the first agency we actually contacted was the National Disaster Management Centre (NDMC) as we thought they were the ones who dealt with these things. They then directed us to other agencies to further understand the situation,” added Dr Wida Susanty.

In 2016, she also engaged with the Fire and Rescue Department as they actively deal with extinguishing fires, which made them the main focus of the research project that year along with other parties to further understand the traits of peat and why it reacts the way it does.

The Fire and Rescue Department explained that when peat catches fire it is the most dangerous because the fire is underneath as it is like a sponge, so when it is dry it will also be empty, and when lit up the fire can go undetected, making it very dangerous especially for firefighters as sometimes the fire is right under their feet and can also kill them due to the strength of the peat fire being stronger than a normal forest fire.

“My children and I are asthmatic, so it gave a stronger motivation for me to put the focus more on peatland. Even before NAPC came in, my focus was already on peatlands because that is the most difficult to control,” said Dr Wida Susanty. “Because we have disrupt the natural environment, the ecosystem can no longer sustain itself so that’s why when it is wet, it is wet, when it is dry, it is dry.”

She explained that with sensors, they will be able to know what will happen next through readings on water levels.

During a site visit to one of the peatlands in Badas, Kuala Belait, they thought of having technology to assist in monitoring the area instead of people going to monitor. They thought about ways to implement technology that can give instant data in real-time to detect and send to the cloud which will then give a dashboard alert to parties such as NDMC, the Fire and Rescue Department and the like to avoid human error of missed notifications.

“When agencies have access to it, they will be able to find out whether the parametres have gone over the threshold and such,” she said. “It took me a while to have a grasp on peatland and when NAPC happened I got to understand the context in a bigger picture where it’s regional so I discussed with people in Malaysia and Indonesia.”

The assistant professor also revealed that just last year, she managed to get hold of JASTIP-Net with Professor Mamoru Kanzaki and Professor Mitsuru Osaki, who are the leads when fires happen in Indonesia, which became a huge opportunity.

Meanwhile, one of the challenges with peat, said Dr Wida Susanty, is that they are monitoring a place that has a vast area, for which they are looking into triangulation and have managed to put four sensors at four areas to check water level, environment, weather conditions and the like, as Brunei has wet and dry seasons.

Another challenge they are currently facing is deployment. She added that they had the opportunity to deploy the equipment in a real environment, but because of the COVID-19 outbreak, all equipment is now stored in their lab. As these things take time, Dr Wida Susanty said that an additional challenge they face is convincing people. With the NAPC, their strategy is to look at it in two ways – technology and social. As they have already addressed the technology aspect, they still need to bring in people as awareness has to be there and to convince people to have the same passion for minimising the risks of peatland fires.

“As researchers, that’s our contribution to our country. Everyone has to play their own parts so that we can succeed,” said the assistant professor.

Having submitted her work for the 2020 ASEAN-US Science Prize for Women, Dr Wida Susanty didn’t know she would be chosen as a national finalist, but with this year’s theme centering on “preventive healthcare”, she felt that it strongly related to her research’s motivation aspect linking technology and addressing health, especially those who are asthmatic and have heart problems.

“I submitted with the respect of the preventive healthcare context, and I had to really convey how to present technology in a health perspective,” she said. “There were a series of questions that I had to answer and prove, and when the call came for the national finalist spot I had to come up with a video where I had to think of how to present it in a visual manner.”

The assistant professor was thankful for her connections with all the stakeholders who prepared everything including the feed of the fires from the Fire and Rescue Department as without them, she feels her video wouldn’t work.

“It was quite unbelievable at first, and even before I did the video I was worried about what to say. I never thought that I would become a national finalist as there are others and this area is ‘Preventive Healthcare’. My husband urged me to try,” she added.

After the national finalist stage, the regional finalist stage will be announced where from 10 finalists they will cut down to only two who will go on to present in Laos where the judges will get to know them more in person, and one will become the winner while the other will get the honour of a special mention.

“For me, to even be selected at the national finalist stage is already an honour. From 2016, I’m still carrying on, because there are a lot of things to look into concerning peatland and how to use technology in Brunei,” she affirmed.

The assistant professor hopes that the research project will materialise and aid relevant stakeholders such as NDMC, the Fire and Rescue Department, HoB and JASTRe, as they are the ones who need to be alerted, where once the equipment gets deployed they will be able to monitor.

Dr Wida Susanty also hopes that by showcasing this, people will become interested in research as that is where improvements can be done for the country and individuals.

“The research is never stagnant as there is always a need to expand and meet demands. Hopefully the research will develop further in the future in this context,” she added. “I always say that if I work alone I will go fast, but if we work together we’ll go far. I cannot do this alone; we need to do this together.”