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Tuesday August 28, 2012

Tasik Chini's lost allure

The biological health of Tasik Chini continues to decline.

TASIK Chini. For years, it drew boatloads of tourists eager to catch the spectacular sight of a lake carpeted with lotus flowers. When I visited the lake 10 years ago, the water was still clear enough for me to see what was at the bottom, which was 3m to 4m deep. The whole environment looked so inviting that I was tempted to jump into the lake for a swim.

By chance, I stopped by the lake to have tea sometime in June, and casually enquired at the Tasik Chini Resort as to when I should be back again to view the famous lotus blooms. The receptionist, without a moment of hesitation, told me that the lotus was now near-extinct, but added that I could try my luck by coming back in August.

Dirty runoffs : Earth
from an iron ore mine is
silting up Tasik Chini,
yet Pahang maintains
that all mines are
outside of the gazetted
boundaries of the
tourism park. Dirty runoffs : Earth from an iron ore mine is silting up Tasik Chini, yet Pahang maintains that all mines are outside of the gazetted boundaries of the tourism park.

I returned there early this month, but a boat cruise across the entire lake made me realise that the lotus blooms now exist only on tourism promotional posters. I saw only a dozen or so blooms near the point where the lake drains into Sungai Chini.

A visiting French family was also left sorely disappointed. “It is a pity we couldn’t see any. It was nothing like the pictures we saw on the Internet. I think we saw only about five stems,” said Catherine Fautrez, who stayed at a guesthouse at the orang asli village of Kampung Gumum. This is a far cry from the days when one could see a sea of lotus just by standing at the jetty of the only resort beside the lake.

According to a boatman, the number of lotus blooms started to dip dramatically five years ago. “Due to the lack of lotus, tourists are shunning this place. We hardly get any business nowadays,” lamented Robert Bia, 34, who has worked as a boatman for the past eight years.

The 5sqkm freshwater lake can be found about 100km from Kuantan in the district of Pekan in Pahang, and is the second largest natural lake in the country. It is rich in biodiversity, hosting 138 species of terrestrial flora, some 300 species of non-aquatic vertebrates as well as 144 species of freshwater fish.

With a catchment size of 45sqkm, Tasik Chini is actually part of the Pahang river basin. Every monsoon season, when the Pahang River swells, water actually flows in the reverse direction back into the lake through Sungai Chini. Viewed another way, Tasik Chini is actually a giant freshwater swamp made up of 12 “lakes”, which are referred to as laut (sea) by the orang asli who live in six villages around the lake: Gumum, Ulu Gumum, Melai, Ulu Melai, Tanjung Puput and Cendahan.

Lotus flowers are supposed to be in full bloom this month but all that can be seen are a dozen or so
pink flowers. Lotus flowers are supposed to be in full bloom this month but all that can be seen are a dozen or so pink flowers.

The lake, gazetted as a tourism park in 1989, started losing its allure in the mid-1980s when the state government began approving land development schemes under the Federal Land Development Authority (Felda) around the lake. The situation was exacerbated in 1995 when the Federal Government built a weir at the end of Sungai Chini to facilitate navigation of tourist boats, despite protests by the orang asli.

The weir raised the level of the lake by at least 2m in a matter of months, causing the death of thousands of Eugenia trees by the water’s edge, as well as the decline of the lotus plants, which don’t typically grow in deep water.

Also submerged were many stands of rattan that the orang asli harvest.

A huge mass of dead vegetation eventually sank to the bottom of the lake and as it rotted in the low-oxygen environment, released foul-smelling methane and hydrogen sulphide, making the lake water unsuitable for drinking or human contact.

Now, it is impossible to navigate up to the river mouth as fallen trees block the way. Local boatmen said the Pahang Department of Irrigation and Drainage is supposed to call for contracts to clear the stretch, but it only does so during the monsoon season.

Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM), which operates the Tasik Chini Research Centre (TCRC) that is led by environmental toxicologist Prof Datuk Dr Mushrifah Idris, is believed to have completed studies to determine whether the weir should stay or go.

Mining disaster

A disturbing fact is that the lake is now perpetually murky, even when it has not been raining. Aside from plantations, open cast mines surround the land. Some of the mines, where iron ore is extracted, operate just 50m from the lake’s edge and it is not too difficult to imagine where silt from the exposed hills will flow to during heavy rains. In one nearby mine, the layer of soft silt in the water is at least 1m thick – probably even more as the measuring stick was not long enough.

Mushrifah said monitoring since 2004 shows that the water quality has remained pretty good. Depending on the location and whether it is the dry or wet season, the water quality hovers around Class II standard (good enough for primary contact like swimming) and some areas that are sheltered from development even achieved Class I.

“There is some concern during the dry weather, as the lake will stagnate due to insufficient flow from the rivers that feed it. As we already know from hydrological data, the lake actually suffers a water deficit for a few months each year.”

The construction of this weir sparked off the steep decline of Tasik Chini in the late 1990s as it raised
the water level by nearly 2m, thus drowning lake-side trees. The construction of this weir sparked off the steep decline of Tasik Chini in the late 1990s as it raised the water level by nearly 2m, thus drowning lake-side trees.

For Prof Maketab Mohamed of the chemical engineering department of Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, sources of pollution to the lake include logging at Bukit Tebakang, cultivation of oil palm at Jemberau, domestic effluent from lake-side dwellers, and the Penyor mines. The largest village, Kampung Gumum, now has sewerage infrastructure after UKM highlighted the unsatisfactory state of sanitation there.

In the past, the Tasik Chini Resort and the National Service camp were blamed for sewage discharge into the lake. Both have since cleaned up their act, though not necessarily to everyone’s satisfaction.

“I think they now have some form of treatment for their wastewater, though the question is how well the septic tanks are maintained. If they are badly maintained, then it is as good as not having any treatment,” said Maketab, an expert in hydrology and water pollution.

Other than scheduled tests by the Department of Environment, water quality in the lake is now monitored round-the-clock by UKM via automated sensors that are connected to its campus in Bangi, Selangor. “We have been engaging the stakeholders, such as plantation owners and miners, to make them aware of the impact of their operations. For example, there is such a thing as green mining but it is not being practised here, possibly due to the lack of knowledge and awareness,” said Mushrifah.

Prof Datuk Dr Mushrifah
Idris of UKM’s Tasik Chini
Research Centre says fish
diversity in the lake has
dropped 30% since the
weir was built. Prof Datuk Dr Mushrifah Idris of UKM’s Tasik Chini Research Centre says fish diversity in the lake has dropped 30% since the weir was built.

The most crucial thing to watch out for is sedimentation, she said. “There must be proper mitigation measures put in place. This year, one of the retention ponds in a mine burst, causing a torrent of silt and mud to flow into the lake. This could have been mitigated if the operator had created a more substantial buffer zone around his operations. Sedimentation is what will kill any lake, and this is a huge threat to Chini right now.”

It is not that Pahang has no inkling of what went wrong, or could go wrong, in Tasik Chini. A report generated by the state executive council after a two-month study in 2004 stated that siltation, illegal cultivation, fertilisers from nearby Felda schemes, and logging were among the main contributors to the problem. The East Coast Economic Region Development Council, a Federal outfit that plans to turn the area into a state park, acknowledged the difficulties in that because the lake has been “greatly degraded over the past decade due to encroachment of agriculture into the catchment, illegal logging, and the construction of the weir”.

Meanwhile, Pahang Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Adnan Yaakob has insisted that mining and logging – while visible to everyone – were not taking place within the gazetted area (tourism park), and that one mine had been operating before the lake was turned into a park. The state is under pressure to allow mining as the catchment surrounding the lake has substantial deposits of iron ore, among many other minerals that are now fetching a good price. Last May, Adnan revealed that iron ore mining provided huge returns, with the state government receiving royalties amounting to RM5.5mil in just four months of 2011 compared with RM4mil for the whole of 2010. He had said that Pahang would set up a special body to coordinate iron ore mining in the state, which at that point had received 3,000 applications to mine iron ore.

For tourists wishing to see the famed annual lotus blooms, there is none to view now. Even if they do make it to the lake, they will be greeted by the sight of bulldozers and machinery moving earth, as well as mounds of logs waiting to be transported out – not exactly good advertisement for a tourism park, or Malaysia’s sole Unesco Biosphere Reserve (awarded in 2009). According to Mushrifah, UKM pushed for the biosphere status when it thought that the state was committed to not allowing mining to recommence around Tasik Chini. Biosphere reserves are sites recognised as having the potential to promote sustainable development based on an innovative blend of community effort and robust science.

The orang asli of Tasik Chini recently staged a protest over the erosion of their traditional land rights.
Mines and plantations have taken over what they consider to be ancestral land. The orang asli of Tasik Chini recently staged a protest over the erosion of their traditional land rights. Mines and plantations have taken over what they consider to be ancestral land.

Community’s plight

The orang asli are furious at Adnan’s recent claim that the pollution in the lake is not as serious as stated by non-governmental groups. (Transparency International Malaysia recently launched the Save Tasik Chini campaign.) Underlying land rights issues have also contributed to much unhappiness among them even before mining commenced in the area.

“We, who have lived in this ecosystem for centuries, have been suffering from the negative effects of ecological degradation over the last few years. As a result, I cannot even eat the fish caught in the lake as they have a rotten smell. Species like the jelawat, belida and kelisa are also no longer present in the lake,” said Kampung Gumum headman Awang Alok, 71, at a press conference in Kuala Lumpur recently. “And we can no longer venture into areas where we used to harvest herbs and roots as these areas are out of bounds for us since mining started.”

Awang’s allegation is backed by the findings of Tasik Chini Research Centre, which found a 30% decline in the variety of fish in the lake. “Fish is hard to come by nowadays,” said Ismail Muhammad, who chairs the Tasik Chini action committee. “Even the toman (a hardy carnivorous fish) is difficult to spot now.”?

In this file photo from 1998, lotus blooms carpet
the lake. Sadly, today, such a scene is only found
on tourism promotional posters. In this file photo from 1998, lotus blooms carpet the lake. Sadly, today, such a scene is only found on tourism promotional posters.

According to Maketab, who is also Malaysian Nature Society president, the only “right” thing that was done was the modification of the weir in 2000 to lower water levels, though the full extent of the lake’s restoration might take decades if there is no drastic intervention to assist the healing process. Right now, it is business as usual at the mines, and there are no signs that the riparian zone is going to be reinforced or reforested properly anytime soon.

Will Pahang do the right thing before it is too late?

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