Would you cut off your own water supply?

The source of water in question is the Ulu Muda Forest Reserve and surrounding forests (Greater Ulu Muda) which stretch from Kedah’s border with Thailand to Baling in northern Perak. It is about twice the size of Singapore.

These forests supply 96.5% of Kedah’s and 80% of Penang’s treated water, feeding three man-made dams – Muda, Pedu and Ahning – and forming the headwaters for the Muda and Kedah rivers.

Ten environmental groups have pointed out that the water from these forests powers the growth of the electronics, heavy industry and tourism sectors in Kedah and Penang – attracting nearly RM32bil in total investments for the Kulim Hi-Tech Park and creating more than 30,000 high-income jobs.

The 10 groups (Consumers Association of Penang, Earth Lodge, GreenSmiths, three branches of the Malaysian Nature Society, Sahabat Alam Malaysia, Treat Every Environment Special, Water Watch Penang and WWF-Malaysia) have also stressed that these forests provide water to the “rice bowl of Malaysia” – the padi fields of Kedah and southern Perlis.

“It is water from the Greater Ulu Muda forests that enables farmers to practise double cropping, contributing to about one-third of the nation’s rice production and the livelihood of 55,000 families,” they said in a joint statement last month.

“It is a water catchment forest which is of national significance,” underline the groups, calling for the entire 163,000ha of Greater Ulu Muda to be declared as a state park.

The term “water catchment” is often heard, but what exactly does it mean?

Basically, all the roots and leaves of the forest act as a giant sponge that absorbs excess rain water during the wet season. During droughts, the sponge gradually releases water into rivers.

Without this absorbent sponge, our torrential tropical rains rush over exposed ground, eroding soil and silting up rivers. The result is shallower rivers which cannot carry so much water and overflow, causing devastating floods (like the ones that hit extensively logged Kelantan from December 2014 to January 2015).

New logging trail

Sadly, on April 14, a team from The Star reported that a new logging trail had been found in the forest reserve near the critical Muda dam at Sik, Kedah. Hundreds of logs were also stacked up at one site. One signboard showed that the licence holder is Perbadanan Mentri Besar Kedah.

Clearly then, there is a need to look at the short-term profits of logging (for whom?) versus the long-term benefits of preserving the forests for water supply, flood control, industrial development and padi production, not to mention ecotourism.

All this involves thousands of jobs and the comfort of hundreds of thousands of residents.

water supply

The hot springs-cum-salt lick at Sira Air Panas attracts many animals – and tourists too.

At this time one year ago, this writer was literally walking in Penang’s (and Kedah’s) water supply.

I was on a trip to Earth Lodge, an ecotourism centre run by conservationist Hymeir Kamarudin deep inside Ulu Muda. But our boat kept getting stuck on the sandy bed of the shallow Muda river and we had to constantly jump off to help push the boat upstream. This was a very clear sign of logging.

The irony is that political leaders recognised the crucial importance of Ulu Muda in water supply before. As previous media reports show, in 2003, the Federal Government agreed to pay Kedah RM100mil annually in exchange for not logging its forests.

That was the last year that Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad (who hails from Kedah) was Prime Minister. However, after he stepped down, the money was never paid (“Pay us to stop logging, Kedah tells Federal Govt“, The Star, Feb 14, 2013).

When PAS took over the Kedah state government in 2008, logging accelerated as its Mentri Besar, the late Tan Sri Azizan Abdul Razak, claimed that the state lacked other income.

In the 2013 election, Datuk Paduka Mukhriz Mahathir (then with Barisan Nasional) attacked the PAS administration for the logging and made an election pledge to halt it. Mukhriz famously said then: “To me, a tree is worth more standing than felled.”

But two years after winning the state and becoming Mentri Besar, Mukhriz told the Kedah state assembly in 2015 that the state government was compelled to issue logging licences as this had been approved by the previous PAS administration. Mukhriz himself had to step down as Mentri Besar in February 2016 after a political crisis.

The political ping pong continued this year between Penang (which is governed by Pakatan Harapan) and Kedah (under Barisan Nasional).

On April 14, Penang Water Supply Corporation chief executive officer Datuk Jaseni Maidinsa warned that continuous logging at Ulu Muda could be catastrophic.

He urged the Federal Government to take action as it would affect the North Corridor Economic Region (NCER).

“All the investments in the northern region need water supply,” he said.

Jaseni said if the river water was “teh tarik” (brown) in colour, these were signs of soil erosion and logging. He added that the whole catchment area would be completely logged in 12 years if nothing was done.

On May 8, Kedah replied. Its Water Resources, Housing and Local Government Committee chairman Datuk Badrol Hisham Hashim said Jaseni should “not meddle” in the affairs of other states.

He claimed that logging was only being done on 30% of the 41,375ha Ulu Muda Forest Reserve, in areas far away from the water catchment area.

But “not meddling” is inaccurate, because the lower parts of the Muda river are shared between Kedah and Penang – so logging in the upstream forests does affect both states.

Furthermore, the claim that logging is being done “far away” from water catchment areas could be misleading. This is because, as one conservationist explained to me last year, Kedah has taken a narrow definition of “water catchment” limited to the steepest hills (close to Kedah’s borders) but not the forests near rivers itself (which is why we were seeing erosion and brown waters).

On May 10, Jaseni pointed out that two of Penang’s dams are almost full with the recent rains in the northern region, yet Kedah’s Muda Dam is still less than half full. During last year’s El Niño drought in May, Muda Dam was about 30% full.

So, was this a sign that logging in Kedah is sapping the Greater Ulu Muda forest’s ability to “catch” water?

Jaseni said, “We want Kedah to clarify the 15km logging trail near the Muda Dam that appeared in The Star.”

Save Ulu Muda now

While the arguments continue, the fate of Ulu Muda hangs in the balance.

During my trip last year, Hymeir showed me many photos of wildlife which had been taken with automatic camera traps. The rich hoard included pangolins, elephants, tapirs, deer, wild boars, civet cats and sun bears. There were also amazing shots of big cats: clouded leopards, golden jungle cats and marbled cats.

water supply

The dry Muda Lake during the drought in April 2016. Water ‘stored’ in the forest is crucial to maintaining water supply.

The 10 environmental groups pointed out that there are over 300 species of birds here.

“It is one of the only two areas in Malaysia where all 10 species of Malaysian hornbills are found,” they said.

In their recent appeal, the 10 groups highlighted the fact that the Federal Government’s National Ecotourism Plan 2016 (under the Ministry of Tourism and Culture) had identified Ulu Muda as a “priority ecotourism” area.

The 10 added, “We fully under­stand that logging generates revenue for the state. However, the importance of these forests warrants full protection. In shifting towards green growth, the 11th Malaysia Plan identifies forests as the nation’s natural capital due to the ecosystem services they provide.”

The 10 groups have appealed to the Federal Government to step in to save the Greater Ulu Muda forests via alternative (and sustainable) sources of income for the state such as Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) and ecotourism.

PES would be a revival of the Federal Government’s old promise to pay Kedah (an amount to be negotiated) in return for conserving its forests for the greater national good.

As for ecotourism, one only needs to look at the booming business in Taman Negara, Pahang. Ulu Muda can easily become the “Taman Negara of the North”, providing jobs and income for decades to come, rather than chopping down trees for short-term (or short-sighted) gains.

Given that this place lies between two major tourism attractions in Malaysia – Penang and Perhentian island, Terengganu – which are easily connected via the East-West Highway, ecotourism is indeed very feasible.

I fondly remember my trip to Ulu Muda last year: trekking through still pristine forests, floating down the river in tyre tubes with tall trees on either side, exploring caves, and visiting salt licks where wild animals came to get their minerals.

One can only hope that this slice of paradise will remain as an inheritance for Malaysia’s future generations.