Malaysia: Mangrove oasis in jeopardy

VICTORIA BROWN The Star 2 Feb 16;

KUALA SELANGOR: Walking through the green oasis of Kuala Selangor Nature Park mangroves, with chirping birds and the occasional rustle of leaves from climbing monkeys, it saddens me that such a pristine ecosystem full of wildlife and beauty are slowly diminishing.

Malaysia has an extensive area of wetlands, with the Malaysian Wetland Directory listing over a hundred wetland sites, including mangroves, mudflats, river systems and tropical peat swamp forests.

Wetlands are vital ecosystems that provide food, filter water, reduce flood risk, increase resilience to storms and offer a unique habitat for a variety of species.

More than a billion people make their living from wetlands. Hence this year's World Wetlands Day theme, that falls on Feb 2, is aptly 'Wetlands for our Future: Sustainable Livelihood'.

However, these valuable ecosystems are degrading rapidly due to pollution, conversion for agriculture plantations and development purposes.

Wetlands International Malaysia resource development officer Kamaliah Kasmaruddin said that these development activities will have a long term impact on the environment and community.

“For example, the degradation of mangrove areas will affect coastal erosion, it will effect the sea level, and will affect the inundation of land,” she said.

“When there’s coastal erosion, the fishermen will suffer because there are no more fish,” said Kamaliah.

She said that with coastal erosion, we will be losing more land space. And despite efforts to reclaim the land by building banks, Kamaliah said that hard structure engineering cannot replicate the natural foundation mangroves provide.

The dense root systems of mangrove forests trap sediments flowing down rivers and off the land, that helps to stabilize the coastline and prevent erosion from waves and storms.

Kamaliah said that by clearing wetlands due to agriculture, aquaculture or other types of development can have profound effects on the functioning of wetlands.

A Wetlands International commissioned case study on Rajang Delta in Sarawak shows that about 87% of Rajang Delta may be flooded within 100 years if current peatland management is continued.

Wetlands International Malaysia technical officer Yong Huai Mei said that peatland subsidence will cause flooding, rendering half of Rajang Delta unsuitable for any agriculture cultivation.

“Such flooding is due to the conversion of peat swamp forest to agriculture. The grower will need to drain the water from the peatlands and then compact the peatlands.

“This will bring down the water which will cause peatland subsidence,” said Yong.

Yong said that areas in Rajang Delta are already experiencing drainage problems. But if nothing is done to address the problem, it will lead to extensive flooding across the peatland.

“It is an irreversible process unless we have more investment to build dikes and pumps to pump out the water. Otherwise, they would lose the productive land,” said Yong.

Yong said that the findings of the study is "scary", especially since many people live near Rajang Delta.

“Imagine that their houses could be occasionally flooded and they may need to leave their home. It is very dangerous,” said Yong.

Kamaliah said that there is no point in having short term gains with bad effects in the long term.

She gave the example of the Netherlands, where two thirds of the country is vulnerable to flooding due to the development of peat swamps and mangrove areas.

“Now, they are suffering from their losses because there is no way that you can secure the land without mangrove areas and peat swamp forests,” she said.

The risk of flooding has led to the installation of river dikes, drainage ditches and pumping stations.

“Can you imagine how much that will cost? We also hear about the faulty pumps and things like that. So we wouldn’t want that happening in Malaysia,” said Kamaliah.

Kamaliah said that proper calculations and environmental impact assessments are not being carried out properly.

“We are actually not doing a cost effective approach for development. That is one of the biggest problems,” she said.

“We are losing more and more land space. What is happening is that we are clearing wetlands, then it doesn’t function, and it will become barren.

“So that piece of land is no longer providing any services for us.

“The services that is provided by the ecosystem is the most valuable. You cannot really replicate these kind of things in constructed wetlands or in any manmade structure,” said Kamaliah.

Kamaliah said that many communities also depend on wetlands to earn a living.

“The resources it provides are the wood and timber of the mangrove area. And fishermen depend on wetlands to catch cockles, crabs, fish,” she said.

“There are a lot of resources that can be used in wetlands.

“Without the wetlands area, I think it really opens up a whole new level of vulnerability against the community,” said Kamaliah.

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