Malaysia/Indonesia — Drought, forest fires, floods and death loom ahead pending the expected arrival of the one of the biggest El Nino weather patterns in the second half of the year.
Southeast Asia, is expected to feel the impact last experienced in 1997 and 1998. El Nino left 20,000 dead and US$97 billion in damages.
Already Philippine,s fearing severe drought, has begun cloud seeding, Indonesia has announced it is securing food stocks and has set aside US$173 million to this end.
Scientists have warned that the 2014 El Nino could be one of the strongest in nearly two decades.
Whether or not Malaysia and Malaysians are truly ready for the onslaught of El Nino is debatable.
In Borneo, forests and rivers are an important El Nino issue meriting serious consideration.
According to a combined study from scientists at the Duke University, droughts as a result of warmer temperatures in the Indian Ocean and higher frequency of El Niño events will make it more difficult for Borneos rainforest inhabitants including its tree species to survive.
As El Nino events become more frequent in the future in response to warming in the tropical oceans, even the species of trees that can adapt to drought conditions will be at increased risk of dying off.
The small number of species (flora and fauna) that cannot adapt well to drought conditions will be at an even greater risk of dying off, noted the study.
Borneo, the third largest island in the world, is home to more than 210 mammal species including 10 varieties of primates, 420 types of birds and 150 reptiles and amphibians versions.
Hereto are at least 10,000 plant species of which 5,000 are endemic are found nowhere else in the world.
Warming temperatures, changes in precipitation and the flowering and seasonality of forest plants and trees will affect the food chain here somwhat and invariably reproductivity.
Looking out for hotspots
The worlds largest palm oil factory is also sited here. Combined Malaysia and Indonesia producers 87% of the worlds palm oil.
El Nino is expected to be crippling to the oil plam industry which has seen the conversion of thousands of hectares of the Borneo rainforest and the displacement of wildlife.
According to Stephan Wulffraat, a member of World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in charge of monitoring and evaluating the forests under the Heart of Borneo (HoB) project involving Malaysia, Bruneia nd Kalimantan the prevention and early warning of forest fires will be the highest priority in the event of El Nino.
Real-time hotspot data will be utilised from satellite images to monitor the situation. In the event that a fire is detected, forestry teams will be ready to extinguish them.
Local communities in the area have also been made aware of fire risks when opening fields, he said.
Sarawak experienced the worst haze in the 1997 El Nino when the federal government was forced to declare a state of environment emergency for 10 days after the Air Pollutant Index (API) level recorded a reading of over 900.
This time round WWF forest watchers are on high alert for fires and droughts.
On a regular day, fires are caused by among others the illegal land clearance (such as incursions into protected areas) noted WWFs latest report on the ecological health of HoB.
The report also noted with concern the Bornean elephants that meanders between Sabah and Kalimantan.
Elephants need water and a lot of it, noted Sabah Wildlife Department deputy director II Jumirah Abd Shukor.
She said the El Nino would further trigger change in the hydrology.
Borneos elephants, orangutans
She said even before the El Nino impact, the current drought spell had taken a toll on its Borneo Elephant Sanctuary (BES) at Lot 8, Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary.
The only problem were facing right now is that the elephants are not getting enough water. Its our biggest worry.
We have plans to use water from rivers and wells hopefully this water issue will be solved within a few months, she said, weighing-in concerns of the impending dry weather.
Elephants can ingest over 100 litres of water at one time and would usually drink up to 225 litres a day, said Jumirah adding that water is extremely important to an elephant.
Elephants are not the only concern, Sabah, Sarawak and Kalimantan are also home to the world famous orangutan.
Concerns are rife over the effects of rising temperatures, even without the impending El Nino.
Borneo and Indonesia at large is one of the countrys most adversely affected by it.
In the 1997 and 1998 incident, forest fires were exacerbated by drought conditions. It is believed that thousands of orangutans died as the forests burned.
A survey in 2003 showed the wild life population in Central Kalimantan had decreased by 49%.