Ulu Muda’s forest ‘reserved’ for logging?

IN Malaysia, surface water flows provide 97% of the country’s water needs and reservoirs provide for the majority of the country’s water storage, according to the Asian Development Bank (ADB).

Water catchment areas are usually rainforests that catch rainwater whenever it rains. The raw water then flows into rivers, which is then transported via the respective tributaries into the sea or otherwise will be diverted fill up our dams – by way of impoundment of the reservoir – which are the main sources of treated water.

As it is, rampant deforestation can have an impact on our water supply when logging occurs close to dams, increasing soil erosion and siltation, which causes water pollution. Consequently, the dam’s “lifespan” would be shortened.

With water catchment areas impacted, there won’t be any forests to collect and store rainwater. This poses danger to our water security.

Research done in Malawi highlighted how a country that has faced rampant deforestation over the years saw the corresponding diminution of safe drinking water access to households. This is due to Malawi losing 14% of its forest cover between 2000 and 2010, which resulted in a 9% reduction in rainfall.

Rather unsurprisingly, Malaysia was ranked ninth in the world for the loss of tree cover between 2001 and 2021 by the Global Forest Watch (below). In the past two decades of deforestation, Malaysia has lost 30% of tree cover since 2000. This represents 2% of the global total.

If (rampant) deforestation persists at an alarming rate, Malaysia will face severe consequences as a result of water insecurity.

The ADB and World Bank, in a 2021 joint-report – Climate Risk Country Profile: Malaysia – have stated that changes in water supply will also affect the plant and crop water demands. Early-season droughts and floods may result in yield reductions of up to 60%, and may have an impact production of cocoa, palm oil, and rubber in the country.

Due to warming climate, it is anticipated that Malaysia would experience heatwaves more frequently and more intensely as well.

Ulu Muda Forest Reserve (UMFR), located in Kedah, is considered as a premier water catchment area for Malaysia as it provides the main water supply for irrigation to the Northern Corridor Economic Region.

Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) president Prof Dr Ahmad Ismail is reported to have said that the country’s rice industry could be threatened since the UMFR is used to irrigate 96,558ha of rice fields in the Muda Agricultural Development Authority area, accounting for 40% of total rice production although covering only 23% of the overall rice cultivation area.

The country continues to be beholden to rampant deforestation caused by greed – since the logging and timber business is a steady source of lucrative income for the state government and the relevant local authorities.

Conservation and environmental science news platform Mongabay (“Logging in Malaysia’s Ulu Muda forest threatens wildlife and water supplies”, June 26, 2017) pointed out that the lead culprits are the political parties in power. Deforestation in Kedah went up when PAS took control of the state in 2008.

Logging continued unabated in 2013 when Barisan Nasional took over, on the basis that permits that have already been issued must be respected.

Only when there was another change of government at both federal and state levels in 2018 did the rate of deforestation drop dramatically.

While logging is a “quick” option for the state to make money, but obviously it is not sustainable in the long-term – not to mention the adverse side-effects of which water insecurity is a critical concern.

However, despite a lower deforestation rate in 2020, 22 civil society groups expressed their shock when news reports revealed logging activities in the Ulu Muda forest reserve were still persisting.

The claim was made by comparison from satellite images between May and November 2020 within the Greater Ulu Muda Forest Reserve.

The majority of the logging in Ulu Muda is done legally, according to Earth Lodge CEO Hymeir Kamarudin, who also criticised Kedah’s decision-makers for “neglecting” Ulu Muda’s importance as a primary water catchment region.

It is to be noted that despite the state government losing millions of ringgit in potential revenue, the then Kedah menteri besar Mukhriz Mahathir had decided to halt logging in the state in 2018.

MNS’ Ahmad believes that by gazetting UMFR as a “state park” under Kedah’s state enactment, it will remain unaffected even if the state’s leadership or administration changes.

Emir Research would propose the following policy recommendations:

– An indefinite total moratorium on logging in permanent forest reserves (PRFs). If needed, parliament should pass a short legislation to override states. In this connection, there should be total protection of the PRFs by abolishing the establishment of forest or monoculture plantations.

– New reforestation campaigns must be launched for the restoration of deforested regions, including the UMFR.

– The setting up of an UMFR Strategic Fund – with seed money from both the federal and state governments and “matched” by investments from the private sector.

Investment schemes can include “nature conservation agreements” leveraging on “natural capital benefits”. This can be part of the long-term strategic plan to enhance Malaysia’s reputation as a leading carbon market in Asia and globally.

The fund must be managed solely by the federal government and accountable to parliament.

It is time we put a stop to the incessant “mockery” of Mother Nature in the form of excessive and rampant logging. – September 14, 2022.

* Jason Loh and Nik Nurdiana Zulkifli are part of the research team of Emir Research, an independent think tank focused on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research.

* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight. Article may be edited for brevity and clarity.

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