Protecting forests a cost effective way to curb serious flooding
Dear Prime Minister YAB Datuk Seri Najib Razak,
We the undersigned, in the aftermath of the devastating floods that ravaged many states and left in its wake a trail of destruction consisting of lost lives, homes and livelihoods, write you this open letter as a means of recommending feasible and sustainable solutions towards flood mitigation.
Firstly, we laud the decision by the YAB to award top most priority for flood mitigation projects under the 11th Malaysia Plan.
We also understand that it is requisite for the government to be quick and decisive in offering prescriptions that would mitigate floods occurrences and thereby placate increasingly worried and vulnerable Malaysians.
However, we as a group of concerned natural resource management professionals and conservationists, note with concern the recent pronouncements about building dams as a means to this end.
We would like to offer our views on the way forward based on our collective experience.
In general flood mitigation efforts can be in the form of structural and non-structural measures and would usually include the following:
• Avoidance — with proper land use planning, the state governments can control development in flood prone areas such as flood plains and riparian areas.
While there is not much we can do about existing development patterns, state governments need to be more disciplined with future development.
• Protect upland forests — forests in the uplands help to moderate the floods as their vegetation help to reduce the speed of water, allow water to seep into the soil better and reduce the volume of water moving downstream.
• Minimise run-off to downstream — the Department of Irrigation and Drainage has clear guidelines (Manual Saliran Mesra Alam or MASMA) on flood retention and measures to enhance permeability and reduce the speed of water running off from a development.
However, it is a pity that much of it is not well implemented.
• Improving river drainage — this is usually done by widening and deepening the river and constructing flood protecting bunds/levees.
This established practice for the past 50 years has its drawbacks as it often increases the speed of water which then causes other problems including higher flood peaks.
It may solve flooding in one place but could lead to problems in another place. River improvements often damage important habitats for fish and other river life-forms.
• Building more flood control dams – this is an expensive option and should ideally be the last option as further elaborated below.
The building of dams as a flood mitigation measure has negative implications that far outweigh the benefits of building them.
These include environmental, societal and economic effects such as:-
• The permanent loss of forests and the ecological functions that they provide.
• Significant contribution towards greenhouse gas emissions due to the decay of organic material in the reservoir inundation area.
Further greenhouse gas emissions will arise from the construction of the dam itself and all associated infrastructure building activities.
• The loss of wildlife habitats and consequent impediment of natural wildlife movement patterns and biological processes across the landscape.
• The inevitable displacement of local communities, in particular indigenous communities, from their traditional territories as well as loss of their livelihoods
• The disruption of the natural river hydrology leading to a reduction in the deposition of nutrients downstream of the dam.
The presence of dams without controlling deforestation in their catchment areas can be counter-productive, as evident in the Ringlet dam in Cameron Highlands, where the reservoir’s holding capacity has been severely compromised by sedimentation from forest clearing upstream.
As a result, emergency releases here have led to flash floods, which have claimed lives and property in the immediate areas downstream.
We therefore urge the government to move away from purely structural responses as primary solutions for flood mitigation and to move towards more holistic non-structural measures.
We ardently believe that improving forest and wetlands protection and management will be less costly than building dams, more sustainable in the long run and have many other benefits.
It is evident that widespread deforestation in catchment areas is one of the main contributing factors to the increasing severity of the floods in recent times.
When rivers are clogged up with huge amounts of silt and debris caused by forest clearing their capacities to channel floodwater are greatly reduced.
This necessitates the removal of such impediments from the rivers and the reforestation of deforested areas and rehabilitation of hill slopes, both of which are costly ventures.
It is crucial that the government acknowledges this so that all relevant policy level actions can be galvanised as soon as possible.
We herein outline a number of key measures that the government must undertake immediately as the means towards ensuring holistic, integrated, sustainable and adequately governed measures to effectively address the root causes of ongoing widespread deforestation and thereby reduce the severity of annual monsoonal flooding.
These measures include:-
i. Towards better protection and management of forests; to expedite the review of the National Forestry Policy of 1978 with a view to entrench environmentally sustainable principles and actions therein, including a fundamental principle that forest reserves should remain under natural forest cover and not be replaced with tree plantations (such as rubber) and other agricultural crops.
ii. Immediately direct the Attorney General’s Chambers to undertake a consultative legislative review of the National Forestry Act1984 with a view to prescribe stricter environmental safeguards.
We urge the inclusion of a provision that requires mandatory public participation in cases where forest reserves are being excised for whatever purpose.
iii. Provide full budgetary and political support for the implementation of the National Physical Plan and the Central Forest Spine Master Plan (especially at state level), and other equivalent plans in Sabah and Sarawak.
iv. Revive the initiative to develop a National Highlands Policy that was mooted more than a decade ago stemming from the National Highlands Study of 2003 commissioned by the Economic Planning Unit.
v. Action by the National Land Council to pass a resolution that calls for a moratorium on the further expansion of tree plantations within forest reserves.
vi. Ensure that all states implement the four core areas identified under the National Water Resources Policy (NWRP) 2010-2050, which has been approved by the Cabinet.
vii. Ensure in the 2015 Budget and beyond, that all enforcement agencies whether directly or indirectly involved in the protection and management of forests and their resources are adequately funded to carry out their functions.
Further to this, towards better coordinated and joint efforts in relation to enforcement of the aforesaid, to consider the establishment of a Forest Enforcement Agency (similar to the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency).
viii. Identify and consequently roll out within the 11th Malaysian Plan sufficient economic incentives to State Governments in order to reduce their continued dependence on the exploitation of forests and other natural resources for revenue generation.
What we collectively espouse above are all doable. It simply requires decisive and committed action on your part as the Prime Minister.
We look forward to YAB convening and subsequently inviting us to a constructive dialogue session with YAB, members of the Cabinet and Menteri Besar/Chief Ministers in which we hope to elaborate the recommendations contained herein and following that, collectively design action points towards better forest conservation and management.
Until such time, we respectfully call upon YAB to halt the plan to build more dams for flood mitigation purposes and give priority to forest protection and management efforts.
Sincerely, (the signatories in alphabetical order):-
1. Dylan Jefri Ong, Biodiversity Conservationist and founding director of Denai Bhumi;
2. Gangaram Pursumal, former head of Institut Perikanan Malaysia;
3. Henry Goh, president of the Malaysian Nature Society (MNS);
4. Professor Gurdial Singh Nijar, director, Centre of Excellence for Biodiversity Law (CEBLAW), Malaysia;
5. Gopinath Nagaraj, principal consultant, Fan Li Marine and Consultancy Sdn Bhd;
6. Haider Kamarudin, managing director, Cave Management Group Sdn Bhd;
7. Harjinder Kler, Chair, Tanjung Aru Action Group 2.0 and founding member of the Green SURF coalition;
8. Hymeir Kamarudin, former chairman of the Malaysian Karst Society and ecotourism operator;
9. Justine Jay Vaz, president, Persatuan Rimba Komuniti Kota Damansara;
10. Kevin Hiew, former conservation director, WWF-Malaysia;
11. Lanash Thanda, president of the Sabah Environmental Protection Association (SEPA) and founding member of the Green SURF coalition;
12. Lee Su Win, former executive director of MNS;
13. Dr Lim Boo Liat, recipient of the Merdeka Award;
14. Lim Teck Wyn, director of Resource Stewardship Consultants;
15. Dr Melvin Gumal, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society-Malaysia Programme and winner of the Whitley Award for Conservation in Ape Habitats;
16. Mano Maniam, former president of the Environmental Protection Society of Malaysia (EPSM);
17. Nithi Nesadurai, president of EPSM;
18. Nizam Mahshar, CEO of the Malay Economic Action Council and environmental activist;
19. Preetha Sankar, Advocate & Solicitor, and environmental columnist;
20. Dr Rahimatsah Amat, CEO & founder of the Sabah Environmental Trust, and founding member of the Green SURF coalition;
21. Tan Sri Dr Salleh Mohd Nor, former Director General of Forest Research Institute Malaysia and former president of MNS;
22. Puan Sri Shariffa Sabrina Syed Akil, president of Pertubuhan Pelindung Khazanah Alam Malaysia;
23. Datuk Dr Dionysius Sharma, CEO/Executive Director of WWF-Malaysia;
24. Surin Suksuwan, MNS Council Member and Member of the World Commission for Protected Areas; and
25. Yasmin Rasyid, president & executive director of EcoKnights and chairperson of the Malaysian Environmental NGOs (MENGO) group