Malaysia — WWF-Malaysia commends the decisions made by the Ministers of Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and Indonesia at the 18th Meeting of the Asean Sub-Regional Ministerial Steering Committee (MSC) on Transboundary Haze Pollution held on May 4, 2016.
We support the ministers aim to prevent and monitor the pollution through concerted national efforts, and regional and international cooperation. A study to assess the economic, health and social impact of the 2015 haze on South-East Asia is also much needed. We hope this will pave the way forward for the four countries to collectively take action to combat climate change and haze.
Sustainable and long-term efforts to prevent land and forest fires are critical to address the challenges of climate change. We need to do our part domestically as well to prevent haze incidences within the country.
The haze in Sabah in April, in fact, was caused by open burning by local farmers, and the fire spread to a forest reserve and part of the palm oil plantation in Kampung Lumat, Beaufort. The haze plaguing the Klang Valley last month was due to the smoke from fires in several areas in the peninsula, including peat fires in Kuala Langat and Sepang, Selangor.
Natural Resources and Environment Minister YB Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar said the situation was aggravated by the hot and dry weather, causing the air pollutants to float in the air. He also announced that forest fires in Bekenu and Marudi in Sarawak contributed to the haze in Miri.
The minister assured that at present, there is no haze from across the borders as the country is still going through the change in the monsoon season, which is expected to go on until the middle of May.
Forest degradation and land clearing exposes Malaysia to further risks of home-grown haze in the future alongside the ongoing onslaught from transboundary haze. This would also release tonnes of carbon stored in forests and soil, in turn aggravating the rate of climate change by increasing heat-trapping carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere and increasing average global temperatures.
The natural resources and environment ministers recent urging for a stop to all land development activities that involve Permanent Reserved Forests (PRFs) is indeed timely. The move aims to maintain the role and contribution of PRFs to the country’s development, as well as conserving biodiversity.
While there are provisions in the National Forestry Act, 1984 for excised PRFs to be replaced by an area of land of equal size, it is vital that PRFs that play an important ecological role such as water catchment, soil protection and flood mitigation or with high biodiversity values are not excised. The role of these forests cannot be simply replaced by another piece of land or forest.
Incentives should be provided against degazettement which should be linked to forest cover in terms of quantity and quality. The government needs to increase funding allocated for protection of natural resources for more effective patrolling and enforcement against poaching and encroachment.
As conservation requires long-term efforts, the allocation in the 2017 national budget should be consistently increased for us to move towards the desired outcome. We need to internalise the costs of natural capital in business.
For example, when a company cuts down a forested area, the logs are booked as revenue, but the loss of ecosystem services provided by the forest (e.g. water catchment function, oxygen generation, habitat for pollinators, flood mitigation) are not booked as a loss. It is a loss to society.
We need to value the natural capital – the standing trees make up an important part of the entire forest ecosystem, together with other biotic components, and generate ecosystem services often ignored unless we explicitly value them so that they can compared against the value of the logs.
We seriously need to move towards a system where state governments have the necessary and relevant information that can help them take into account the costs and benefits, and the distribution of those costs and benefits, of any commercial extraction of timber in their decision making. This also applies to other ecosystems like mangroves and freshwater swamps, and also the marine ecosystem.
Malaysia was reported to have a high forest cover of over 54 percent (18.27 million ha/33 million ha) in 2014 with a large part of it consisting of production forests. In the case of production forests, good management practices must continue to be put in place to ensure long-term sustainability and reduced impact upon the environment, through sustainable forest management practices.
Allow ecosystems to function properly
Forests and other ecosystems contribute to both carbon removal from the atmosphere and also climate resilience building. All environmental impacts could be reduced or even avoided if ecosystems are allowed to function properly. Forests regulate the water cycle, provide soil stability, and also regulate the micro climate. If forests are degraded or destroyed, we can no longer enjoy these irreplaceable services which all of us depend on but largely take for granted.
The recent drought affecting the northern states, for example, has forced some states to impose water rationing. It was reported recently that water levels at six dams in Kedah have fallen further. Malaysias National Water Services Commission (Span) urged the Perak state government to start water rationing as the prolonged drought caused water levels at the Bukit Merah dam to reach record low levels.
About 1,900 farmers in the state risk losing an estimated RM26 million (S$8.9 million) due to shortage of water for irrigation.
In more recent times, the resilience of our natural ecosystems including forests is also increasingly subjected to pressure from the changes in our climatic condition, in addition to the already existing anthropogenic induced stresses.
There is more frequent situation of prolonged period of dry weather, less rainfall and higher day time temperature. These have led to the reduction in crop yield and fisheries resources, and can affect food security as well as disruption in water supply. Clearly, the consequences are costly not just in terms of the adversity to the society but also the disruption on the economic productivity.
Adaptive interventions to rectify the situation, for example in the case of inter-basin water transfer to a water deficit region, will be technically intensive requiring construction of infrastructure and hence would be costly as it can run into millions of ringgit.
Considering the drought and hazes immediate and expected long term societal and ecological impacts, efforts to maintain, repair and improve the integrity of the natural world is critical for our continued growth and survival.
In terms of natural capital protection, WWF-Malaysia applauds the Sabah state governments effort in exploring revenue options through ecosystem services such as clean water and air, biodiversity, soil protection and carbon sequestration.
Sabah Forestry Department director Sam Mannan said this new approach was necessary following a decline in revenue from timber products. The Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) approach, a scheme where service providers are compensated to cater for environmental services to the user, has been adopted.
Moving forward, we must protect our forests and other natural ecosystems including peat areas and mangroves, so they can continue to provide natural defences and in turn protect us against adverse climate change impacts. This at the same time reduces further accumulation of carbon concentration in the atmosphere to avoid further changes in the climate in the future.
WWF-Malaysia urges the relevant governments in South-East Asia, including the Malaysian government, to consistently work towards reducing forest fires that are causing the annual haze phenomenon. We must all collaborate and play our role to protect the planet.