The blues, greens, greys and fiery orange of the evening sky reflected off the waters of Tasik Chini, Pahang, the palette interrupted only by dots of sweet pink from the few blooming lotus flowers. Our boat of journalists whizzed across the water, surrounded by green hills that come down to the lake’s edge.
I had heard years ago that Tasik Chini has been ravaged by poorly planned “development” and that the orang asli here had likened the lake water to teh tarik.
But the Federal and State Governments are trying to rectify the ecological sins of the past.
Prior to this, lotus plants – the symbol of Tasik Chini – and lake fish had been dying, slowly succumbing to the pollution and siltation caused by uncontrolled logging and mining in the surrounding areas.
Improper agricultural practices also led to the leakage of fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides into the lake, affecting plant and animal life.
The hunting, gathering and fishing by the orang asli here (from the Jakun and Semai ethnic groups) had been jeopardised by the logging and mining, while their tourism income dwindled as fewer visitors came.
Even the possible sighting of “Naga Seri Gumum” (Malaysia’s version of the Loch Ness monster) and legends of an ancient sunken Khmer city were not enough to entice visitors.
Now, there is a concerted effort to revitalise the lake that is being undertaken by various government agencies. Spearheading these efforts are University Kebangsaan Malaysia’s (UKM) Tasik Chini Research Centre.
A crucial part of the centre is the Tasik Chini Freshwater Laboratory Complex, which was launched by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Abdul Razak on Oct 15.
This complex, located on 4ha of land granted by the Pahang State Government, will monitor the lake’s water quality. It was built by the East Coast Economic Region Development Council. This is part of the Government’s Strategic Implementation Plan for Tasik Chini up to 2025.
The CEO of the Tasik Chini East Coast Economic Region Development Council, Datuk Seri Jeba-singam Issace John, said real-time monitoring is supposed to ensure that any threat to the lake’s water quality from siltation, logging, mining and agricultural activities will be detected immediately.
“Seven water quality monitoring stations (telemetry stations) located at the major feeder rivers surrounding Tasik Chini have been built,” he said adding that this was in addition to other efforts like slope stabilisation, a fish nursery and lake clean-ups.
He claimed that this work has improved the overall water quality to Class II – up from Class III in 2008 – allowing recreational activities to be safely conducted here again. The goal is to improve the water quality to Class I by 2018, which is safe to drink without additional treatment.
This will also enable Tasik Chini to maintain its Biosphere Reserve status granted by Unesco (the United Nations Educational, Scien-tific and Cultural Organisation). Only two lakes in Malaysia have been awarded this status: Tasik Chini and Tasik Bera, both in Pahang.
The Pahang State Government has mooted a Special Area Plan to monitor and enforce lake rehabilitation works. The aim is to re-establish Tasik Chini as a premier ecotourism destination in time for Visit Pahang Year 2017.
Responding to questions on how effective enforcement has been, John said there is a special Tasik Chini Enforcement, Conservation and Maintenance committee headed by the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry.
“Enforcement will be a key initiative,” he said.
Head of the freshwater laboratory complex Prof Datuk Dr Mushrifah Idris said the water quality improvement has been a catalyst for recovery.
“The lotus iconic to Tasik Chini, which was under threat, was reintroduced and has helped revive the lake’s natural ecosystem,” she said, adding that the diversity of fish in Tasik Chini has also flourished.
Other initiatives by UKM are efforts to reduce river bank erosion and control sedimentation.
The three management zones – the core, buffer and transition zones created in adherence to Unesco’s Biosphere Reserve framework – each has its own level of eco protection and permitted human activities to foster balanced development.
UKM Deputy Vice Chancellor (Student Affairs and Innovation) Prof Datuk Dr Mazlin Mokhtar said balancing environmental needs and development is not easy, and plans to rehabilitate Tasik Chini until it becomes a leading ecotourism destination will ultimately benefit locals through jobs and business opportunities.
“What we have today is borrowed from the future, and in our culture, when we borrow something we have to return it in similar or better condition,” he said.
Tasik Chini challenges
There are still many unanswered questions regarding Tasik Chini’s future, said Prof Dr Maketab Mohamed, a former Malaysian Nature Society president, when contacted for comment.
While current rehabilitation efforts are a good step, he wondered if they were enough to solve existing problems.
“There are so many hectares of plantations around the lake, which are sources of water carrying excess fertilisers and pesticides,” he said.
This polluting water is high in nutrients (phosphorus and nitrogen), resulting in infestations of exotic plants like ekor kuching (which is distinct from the local species) that choke the lake.
Yes, real-time monitoring of the water quality is good. But the East Coast Economic Region Develop-ment Council and Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) do not have the authority to stop the development of surrounding land or enforce regulations, as this comes under the state government, said Prof Maketab.
He recalled that there were about 20 or more nearby low-grade iron ore mines that discharged their wastewater, full of sediment, right into the lake. This continued until as recently as a few years ago, when prices declined as demand from China fell.
“The wastewater from chalets and the national service camps were also not treated well until academicians and NGOs complained, and then it was improved,” added Maketab.
“All these problems have been raised since 2012. It’s been four years and a lot seems to have been done, but there is still scepticism among some of us (academicians and NGOs) over the will to resolve these issues,” he explained.
“We have discussed these issues many times with the State Government. The watershed of Tasik Chini MUST be protected from development and only the orang asli should be allowed to develop the area as they are the original occupants.”
UKM Deputy Vice Chancellor (Student Affairs and Innovation) Prof Datuk Dr Mazlin Mokhtar said that the orang asli, particularly those from the Jakun and Semai tribe, have been engaged in lake conservation efforts. An Orang Asli Cultural Village and Handicraft Centre has also been set up.
Maketab added that the goal to clean the lake until it had Class I drinkable water is “wishful thinking” and that a more “achievable target” is Class IIB (which allows for skin contact and, thus, water activities).
Another issue is the barrage (small dam) which was built on Sungai Chini, the river that connects the lake to the mighty Sungai Pahang. This was built after then Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamed visited the lake and commented that the water level was too low and that it should be raised.
Maketab recalled that the barrage was built in the mid 1990s despite objections from the Department of Drainage and Irrigation.
“The barrage blocks the natural flushing of Tasik Chini when Sungai Pahang has high water levels twice a year. That flushing used to remove pollutants and safeguard water quality. That is the negative hydrological impact,” Maketab said.
In addition, the natural flushing also brings in fish from Sungai Pahang to Tasik Chini and vice versa. “Ask the orang asli when the officials are not around and they will tell you they want the barrage removed,” said Maketab. “They say that was the start of their problems.”
Head of the lake’s freshwater laboratory complex Prof Datuk Dr Mushrifah Idris said that research on the impact of the barrage is being carried out to address the issue of natural flushing.
She also noted that the fish nursery at the lab has successfully conserved and increased the population of indigenous fish species.
“Therefore, whether there is backflow (flushing) from Sungai Pahang during the storm season or not, the fish population will still be conserved,” she said.
In addition to this, flushing may not be so crucial as Tasik Chini is surrounded by natural wetlands which act as a natural cleanser.