WE need bigger buffer zones that correspond to the size of gazetted catchments. Activists feel that protecting water catchments is easier to achieve, and more crucial, than gazetting downstream bodies of water.
The existing 10m buffer zone may not be enough for large catchments, says S. Piarapakaran, president of the Association of Water and Energy Research Malaysia (AWER).
In 2014, the wettest town in Malaysia, Taiping, had to ration water. It doesn’t take a genius to know that if catchment areas are disturbed, karma will bite back, he shrugs.
Water catchment, he explains, is an area that is able to flow rainwater to a particular river. A virgin forest can control its own climate, which helps maintain river flow and reduce the impact of a dry season.
“When a catchment is segmented into protected and unprotected areas, the forest’s climate control ability is compromised. And you’ll end up with white elephants like Seremban’s Gemencheh dam. The land-use around it was converted from catchment to plantation. Now, the water company has to spend more than RM30mil to build a back pumping system, pushing pump maintenance and dam de-siltation costs up.
“Bukit Larut (formerly Maxwell Hill, in Perak) is another example. A hostel was built in a catchment area for tourism. The river flow and waterfall have not been the same since.”
Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) president Henry Goh suggests doubling the 10m buffer zone. Zeroing in on protecting our forests to prevent surface runoff, he says better management is needed in the conversion of forests for agriculture.
Large scale cultivation of mono-crops has greatly compromised the water catchments. We have to seriously consider replacing logging as a source of income, he says.
Without the forest acting like a sponge, we have to resort to protecting downstream lakes, swamps and even mining pools, fromexploitation and pollution, MNS conservation department head Balu Perumal adds.
And groundwater should only be a back-up, he adds, wondering whether we’ve reached such a point of desperation that we can no longer rely on our forests.
Authorities are now looking at options like buying water from other states, using water from mining ponds and extracting groundwater – measures that he feels, are “exceptionally drastic” and should be avoided.
“We don’t want to end up like Singapore having to turn to recycled and desalinated sea water. At that stage, the price of water will be too expensive.”
Maintaining forested areas as water catchments is important for long-term sustainability. Look at how Selangor has to buy water from Pahang to drive its economic growth, Balu points out. The state’s original forest cover has shrunk by 30% and what remains is no longer able to retain sufficient water during the dry season, he says.
While stressing the importance of buffer zones, he feels that the size should depend on the type, intensity and scale of the development. Dams without forested catchments upstream are pointless, he adds.
Meanwhile, AWER’s national survey shows that more than 70% of almost 5,000 Malaysians want Parliament to be directly responsible for water resources if the respective state governments’ failure to protect their catchments leads to a water crisis and higher tariffs.
Around the world, many agencies report directly to Parliament. Simply passing the responsibility to a ministry will be no different from what we are facing at the state level now, AWER’s Piarapakaran believes.
Calling on Malaysians to adopt simple measures that can keep water bodies clean, MNS’s Goh pleads: “Reduce, recycle and reuse all non-biodegradable materials. Stop using polyethylene for packaging, carry your own water bottle and use a tiffin carrier. When trekking in the forest, take your rubbish out and throw it away properly.”
He thinks education is key. Public awareness campaigns must be intensified as it’s easier to gain compliance from the informed.
Penang Water Watch president Prof Dr Chan Ngai Weng wants us to love and respect nature. Do something to help stop pollution – volunteer with or support non-governmental organisations. River protection and conservation isn’t solely the government’s responsibility, he insists.
“It’s everyone’s job. Rivers are God’s gift to humanity. We should be stewards protecting rivers, not the culprits that pollute and kill them!”
Balu stresses that we must maintain enough forests to sustain our need for freshwater and to mitigate the impact of climate change. We must start re-forestation exercises in a big way and stop our destructive habits, he urges.
“Be thrifty with water. Pay your Indah Water bills on time because the company cleans your sewage before it goes into the river. And hold regular gotong-royong sessions to beautify rivers.”
Piarapakaran thinks it’s important to introduce mandatory water efficiency labelling for household, industrial and agricultural items. A minimum water efficiency standard must be imposed so products that don’t meet the minimum requirement cannot be sold here. Increasing efficiency ensures availability of raw water to be converted to treated water, he says.