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Under siege again Print E-mail
Sunday, 06 July 2008

New Sunday Times
by Elizabeth John and Adib Povera

Logging’s not the only option
A wild world

When the men with the chainsaw move in, it will spell big trouble for not only the Ulu Muda catchment areas but also downstream to the padi fields and the household taps as far south as Penang, write by Elizabeth John and Adib Povera

FOR A sitting duck, the Ulu Muda catchment forests have achieved an amazing feat -they stayed mostly intact despite endless attempts to clear them of their treasured logs.

Stretched over a thousand square kilometres along Kedah's eastern border with Thailand, this catchment area is a network of several forest reserves.

These forests are the giant sponge that feeds three reservoirs in the state, which in turn supply the country's main rice bowl as well as people and industries across three states.

But that hasn't stopped state governments on either side of the political divide from eyeing the logs; such is its value.

The latest attempt began last month with an announcement from the newly minted Pas-led state government that it was considering logging the area.

Criticism has come fast and furious from green groups, farmers and ordinary folk, who protested just as loudly in 2003 at a BN government plan to log 122,798 hectares of forest in the sprawling catchment.

Whether or not current plans are similar to that mooted five years ago, experts say that any major logging in the catchment will have serious impacts.

Fewer trees also means less water is trapped, says Dr Chan Ngai Weng, a professor in Geography from Universiti Sains Malaysia.

In the long term, the total water retained in the earth would be drastically reduced in a state that has seen a few serious droughts and farmers seated in desperate prayer in their cracked and caked padi fields.

"No water catchment means no water," says Chan who also heads non-governmental group Water Watch Penang.

And with parts of the giant sponge missing, there's likely to be increased flooding downstream affecting Kedah and Penang which share a major river originating in this catchment - Sungai Muda.

The greatest concern though is for the 96,000ha of padi fields in the Muda Agricultural Development Authority (Mada) scheme that produces about a million metric tones of padi a year, accounting for 40 per cent of the coun
country's total rice production.

The scheme is very dependent on water from the catchment, says Loh Kim Mon, the Mada deputy general manager for technical matters.

Rainfall provides just over half the water needed to plant twice yearly in the scheme, says the engineer.

Another 32 per cent is from the reservoirs and 10 per cent from rivers fed by the catchment. A final six per cent is from recycled water.

A Mada report indicates that proposed logging in Ulu Muda's catchment area would have adverse effects on padi production, says Agriculture and Agro-Based Industries Minister Datuk Mustapa Mohamed.

"This stands to jeopardise the livelihood of about 48,500 families, or some quarter of a million people, who depend on padi farming in the Mada region," he told the New Sunday Times.

The report says that with less forest cover, more surface water will run into rivers faster, carrying more silt and lowering water storage levels in the Ahning, Pedu and Muda dams.

It says the success of the padi planting scheme relies on water from these dams and large-scale logging in the catchment should be avoided.

Even with reduced-impact heli-logging, where logs are air-lifted for a distance after being felled, there'll still be clearing for roads, log yards and workers' camps, thus an impact on water sources, the report adds.

"We hope the state government gives very serious consideration to this fact in making any decision," says Mustapa.

These dams don't just help grow grains. They also supply water to homes and industry in north Kedah, south Perlis and Langkawi.

But it's Penang folk who should be most concerned.

The state gets 80 per cent of its water supply from Sungai Muda. The water from Sungai Muda flows into Sungai Dua from which it is pumped for use in Penang, explains Loh.

Silt from logged sites will pollute rivers and clog up water treatment plants, says Chan.

Also, when the water level in Sungai Muda is low, water is released from the Muda dam as was the case in the dry spells of 1998 and 2002.

Loh didn't rule out the possibility that logging could hasten a water deficit.

Details of the logging plan aren't finalised, says Kedah Menteri Besar Azizan Abdul Razak.

In a phone interview, he told New Sunday Times that there was no reason for people to panic. The proposal to log was just that - a proposal.

He says the state will study possible impacts and talk to agencies before deciding. They may not necessarily press on with logging.

But Azizan's previous insistence on logging even if the federal government paid the RM100 million-compensation promised for canceling the 2003 project is enough to justify current hysteria.

State BN reps have given the current administration a tongue-lashing but have probably forgotten that it was only federal government intervention that saved these forests five years ago.

In fact, according to Mada's report a previous state government issued 21 licenses to log a 2,775ha area within the Muda dam's catchment forest.

Logging was done in 1990 and 1991 but was halted when its impacts on the environment and water storage in the dams became clear.

The problem is there's really no iron-clad protection for forests like those in the Ulu Muda catchment.

All permanent forest reserves must be classified under one or more of 11 categories in the National Forestry Act 1984.

The classes describe the purpose for which the land should be used.

So a forest could be for flood control or a wildlife sanctuary. But the act doesn't expressly allowed or prohibit logging in any of these classes.

All it says, in sections 15 and 16, is that logging is allowed with a license, says Roger Tan, chair of the Bar Council's environmental law committee.

Section 20 says license applicants must meet certain requirements but this too can be waived by the state under the act, Tan adds.

Usually state Forestry Departments, draw up rules for activities allowed in reserves. Kedah's declined to release a copy of its rules.

Forests around Ulu Muda were classed permanent reserved forests for production, keeping them a highly desired target.

But in a gazette published this March, some reserves in this area were re-classified as "water catchment forests".

It is learnt that this applied Ulu Muda, Chebar Besar, Pedu and Terenas forest reserves covering 31,329ha.

Even this, isn't a guarantee.

A newly gazetted 2008 Kedah Water Resources Enactment provides for lands to be declared and protected as water conservation areas, with specified limits on activities.

But if the area protected by this enactment is different from the reserve under the Forestry Act, there could be conflicts.

Tan has, in the past, suggested the radical idea of protecting Ulu Muda's catchment forests under the Protected Areas and Protected Places Act 1959 that secures airports and military installations.

It would mean closing reserves to research or tourism and guarding it with heavy duty weapons.

More sensible and practical would be to declare it a park under the National Parks Act 1980, says Surin Suksuwan, WWF's chief technical officer for Peninsular Malaysia.

Or for Kedah to follow Johor and Perak's path of making the area a park under a state parks corporation enactment, he says.

While it's questionable if an area one-and-a half times bigger than Singapore can be protected with guns and fences, the countless attempts made on its life certainly qualifies those forests for some serious body-guarding.

Logging’s not the only option

BEFORE the dams, the grid of canals and planned irrigation padi fields in Kedah were planted just once a year and laid fallow for the remaining six months.

Double cropping was just a dream till the Pedu and Muda dams were built and the Muda Irrigation scheme came into being in the 1970s.

Phang Fatt Khow was then a young agriculture officer and the catchment forests of Ulu Muda a dark and dangerous place of wild beasts and communists.

Now retired from his job at the Rice Seed Centre, he knows what it would be like for padi to go without irrigation.

He worries about that the state's plan to log could silt up the dams and shorten their livespan.
If its income the state's looking for then there are alternatives, says Phang who now heads the Kedah branch of the Malaysian Nature Society.

For instance the area could be declared a state park and the wildlife-rich forests developed for eco-tourism.

"Look at Sabah and Sarawak where they're serious about eco-tourism.

"They plan and manage it well compared with those in Peninsular Malaysia.

"They could also raise water charges and taxes but those would be politically unpopular decisions," he says.

"Yes, logging will bring in quick money but is the profit worth the problems its going to cause farmers, expanding industries and towns and settlements in three states?" asks Water Watch Penang president Dr Chan Ngai Weng.

Kedah should also pursue the federal government to keep its promise of paying RM100 million to the state for protecting its catchment forests, he suggests.

The other option is for Kedah to approach Penang and Perlis to discuss the possibility of payment for the water it provides, he adds.

"In a friendly manner, not with guns blazing! It's always better to negotiate," says Chan.

There's no law compelling Penang to pay Kedah for water when they share the river it is drawn from, says Chan.

"But I am sure, Penang will be willing to listen and talk, since the protection of the Ulu Muda catchment is vital in ensuring adequate clean water in the river."

A wild world

FROM tigers to tapir, more than half the mammal species found in the country are present in Ulu Muda area.

Studies and surveys from a scientific expedition to the Ulu Muda Forest Reserve in March 2003 also found that these forests host six of 10 primate species and 42 of 54 reptile species.

The dense jungles are home to 78 % squirrel species, 53 percent bat species, 175 bird species, seven out of 10 hornbill species.

Scientists also found myriad river and lake fish and herds of elephants which make the reserve a major reservoir for wildlife.

The reserve itself is over 100,000 ha in size and is spread of the Sik, Padang Terap and Baling districsts, adjacent to Thailand in the northeast and Perak in the south.

The national importance of the Ulu Muda complex of forests was first highlighted by a WWF proposal for a Kedah Conservation Strategy in 1984, say papers in Hutan Simpan Ulu Muda, Kedah: Pengurusan, Persekitaran Fizikal dan Biologi, a publication of findings during the 2003 survey.

The area was also been identified as a critical area for conservation under the Economic Planning Unit's Malaysian National Conservation Strategy in 1993.

The strategy recommended that Ulu Muda be protected as a National or State park.

It has also been proposed as trans-frontier protected area as it lies on the Thai-Malaysia border.

In 1996, the National Ecotourism Plan recognized Ulu Muda as a potentially important nature tourism destination.

The forest here is also a storehouse of medical plants with surveys of just small sections uncovering about 56 species.

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