Malaysia: Ground zero of the water crisis

Ray Yeh Channel NewsAsia 2 May 16;

BUKIT MERAH, Perak: Sporadic light rain brought on by cloud seeding might have provided folks in peninsular Malaysia reprieve from the unbearable heat, but it has done little to alleviate the country's water crisis.

At the heart of the crisis are Malaysia’s 41 dams and reservoirs, some of which are fast drying up, especially in the northern states of Perak, Penang, Kedah and Perlis.

While El Nino is to blame for wreaking havoc on weather patterns and causing the drought, some environmentalists claim that excessive deforestation and mismanagement of the dams are equally responsible for the severe water shortage the Southeast Asian country is currently facing.

PERAK'S "RICE BOWL"

The district of Kerian in the northern part of Perak is known as the “rice bowl” of the state, with a long history of paddy farming. A total of 23,705 hectares of land in this area are used for rice plantation.

However, Kerian has lately been making news in Malaysia - not for the district’s unique agricultural heritage, but for the trouble farmers in this rice bowl state find themselves in, as extreme temperatures and dry lands have delayed the start of the planting season.

MALAYSIA’S OLDEST DAM

The area’s main water source for agricultural and domestic use is Bukit Merah Dam, also known as Bukit Merah Lake. It was built more than a century ago in 1906, making it Malaysia’s oldest dam.

Here, normal storage level for full water supply is 8.7m, but water level in the dam has been hovering at around 6m in recent weeks, with a storage balance of below 20 per cent, way below the "danger" level of 40 per cent.

As a result, the Perak state government had decided to stop supplying water to the rice fields to focus on domestic users. They also estimate that if the dry spell continues, the lake will completely dry up in about a month.

PLIGHT OF THE RICE FARMERS

Hit hard by the drought, large expanses of Kerian’s paddy fields have been lying unattended in the scorching heat for more than three months. The once lush landscape has been reduced to patches of brown rice straws and mud cracks.

Close to 1,800 farmers have missed the new planting season that was slated to begin in January. It is uncertain how much longer they have to wait, despite the decision last week by the Drainage and Irrigation Department to release water from the dam in phases to help irrigate the dry paddy fields.

Even with sufficient water, “paddy seeds can’t be planted yet because they will die due to the extreme temperature”, said Mr Abu Bakar, a supervisor at one of the rice fields.

“Temperature plays an important role in farming. I estimate I’ll have to wait for another two weeks (before planting).”

The months-long delay and its domino effects will result in millions lost in combined income.

WATER RATIONING SOON?

Water rationing will be imposed in Kerian by the state if the Bukit Merah Dam level hits the critical 5.18m mark, affecting up to a quarter of a million residents in the area.

However, Malaysia’s National Water Services Commission (SPAN) wants it to be done immediately. “Why wait and risk the livelihood and welfare of the people? The dam may dry up and we cannot predict when this drought will end,” said SPAN commissioner Dr N Marimuthu recently after visiting the Bukit Merah lake.

“Water rationing will make the people aware that there is a water crisis, and they should avoid wastage.”

UNCERTAINTY FOR TOURIST ATTRACTIONS

Bukit Merah Laketown Resort is a popular tourist attraction built right next to the dam, consisting of hotels and theme parks. Water activities came to a halt since the lake near the resort dried up.

Columns and foundation of the main jetty are left exposed, as well as stilts on which water chalets stand.

Not far from the resort, nestled in the lake, is the Orang Utan Island, which has become inaccessible to visitors due to the shallow water.

“Actually every year we have this situation, but not this bad,” said Ms Noor Haslina, a guest service officer.

“In 15 years, I think this is the worst. Last year the boats still can go to the island, but now you cannot go using normal boat, you need to kayak.”

For the past three weeks, staff has been rowing canoes to ferry food and medicine for the 24 orangutans living on the island.

Formerly known as Pulau Panjang, the 14-hectare site also houses research and education facilities on the endangered primate.

“We receive lots of phone calls asking us when we are going to open the island, but we cannot tell them,” said Ms Haslina. “We don’t know, it depends on the rain, on nature.”

MISMANAGEMENT OF DAM?

The current El Nino episode, which began last year, has been one of the strongest ever, smothering vast regions in a months-long heat wave. Economic losses in Southeast Asia could top US$10 billion, according to research firm Global Insight.

However, Mr Afandi Ahmad, secretary of Malaysia’s Environmental Activists Association (Kuasa), said that the water shortage can also be attributed to other man-made factors.

“We have been telling them you will face this problem if you carry on deforestation upstream,” said the 57-year-old, referring to the almost empty Bukit Merah Lake.

“A lot of reserved land around the lake, which is supposed to absorb more water when it rains, is now used to plant oil palm, so the land won’t absorb water anymore, all the rain will just push off.

“And Bukit Merah itself is not what it was supposed to be. When it is rainy season the water level should be brought up so that we can keep more water. But when they started building the resort, no matter how much it rains, they cannot raise the water level, because they have to protect the buildings in the resort,” Mr Afandi said.

“So when it rains, the water would flow away and they will suffer floods. When it is dry season, the water which is meant for paddy plantation is used to help the resort maintain the water for their activities. So the priority of the dam is now the resort. They have misused the purpose of the dam.”

UPGRADING PLANNED

The state government revealed in late April they have plans to upgrade the 110-year-old dam to increase capacity of the reservoir.

“With the upgrading ... the quantity of water the dam can hold will increase from 79 million m³ to 109 million m³, a 38 per cent increase in water catchment,” said Perak’s State Infrastructure, Public Utilities, Water and Energy Committee Chairman Zainol Fadzi Paharudin.

But for now, most ordinary folks can only wait and pray - for the rain to come and the drought to finally end.


It’s bleak for Bukit Merah Dam
The Star 2 May 16;

BAGAN SERAI: Encroachment into the more than 200ha of forest reserves that is a buffer zone around the Bukit Merah reservoir is believed to be one of the factors affecting the water catchment area at the Bukit Merah Dam.

Bagan Serai MP Dr Noor Azmi Ghazali said the intrusion, especially at Kampung Selamat and Pondok Tanjung forest reserve, had been happening for the past few years and was primarily used for agricultural purposes.

“This buffer zone is to store water for the dry season, and when the Bukit Merah Dam level recedes, water from here will flow into the reservoir.

“The encroachment has affected the ecosystem. Sedimentation has made the lake shallow, and heavy rain leads to flooding, because the trees which were meant to act as the buffer have been cut,” he told reporters after visiting the encroached areas with Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM).

The Bukit Merah Dam supplies water to over 22,000ha of padi fields in the Kerian district, and is the source of drinking water for over 200,000 people, including the industrial needs in Kamun­ting, Taiping.

According to Noor Azmi, who is also Bagan Serai Agriculture Development chairman, measures of cloud seeding and upgrading the Bukit Merah reservoir would be in vain, if the encroachment issue was not addressed.

“I have requested the Govern­ment to reserve this site for environmental remediation and to keep it as a watershed,” he said.

SAM researcher Meor Razak Meor Rahman said several areas in Pondok Tanjung and Kampung Selamat previously used to supply water to the reservoir here, had been encroached.

He claimed that his organisation found about 1,400ha of the Pondok Tanjung forest reserve degazetted for breeding Boer goats. – Bernama

Pahang MB orders probe into claims logging is cause for Sungai Pahang’s low water level
The Star 1 May 16;

KUANTAN: Pahang Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Adnan Yaakob (pic) has ordered relevant government departments and agencies to immediately investigate allegations that the main cause for Sungai Pahang becoming shallow and dry was due to excessive logging in Hulu Tembeling.

Adnan said the probe was to determine whether the drop in the water level was caused by logging or attributed to other factors such as extreme hot weather due to the El Nino phenomenon currently sweeping the country.

"We cannot say that only Sungai Pahang is drying up because other rivers are also going dry.

"Indeed (no doubt) one of the reasons for Sungai Pahang going dry is due to the clearing of forest for agriculture, logging and as we know there is the construction of the Tekai and Jelai hydro dams going on in the region ... Nevertheless, we will ask the technical department to give a full and accurate report," he said.

Adnan was speaking to reporters after participating in a charity golf event between the Mentri Besar's team and the alumni of Sekolah Menengah Sains Sultan Ahmad Shah at the Mahkota Golf and Country Club, here Sunday.

Hewas commenting on a recent report about Sungai Pahang's shallow and dry state being attributed to rampant logging activities.

He also said that the water supply problems in some districts in the state such as Temerloh, Lipis, Bera and Raub was due to old pipes besides the water intake point being dry.

In another development, Adnan said the state government through Yayasan Pahang will provide "one off" assistance to 150 students from the International Islamic University of Malaysia (IIUM), Gombak campus.

Besides students from Pahang, the aid will also be given to students from other states as a sign of concern from the state government and out of respect to Sultan Ahmad Shah as IIUM's constitutional head and its rector Prof Datuk Seri Dr Zaleha Kamaruddin, who also hails from Pahang.

The charity golf tournament was held to raise funds to help national golfer Shaaban Hussin, 36, who was involved in a road accident while on the way from his house in Kota Damansara to Shah Alam, last Thursday.

Adnan said RM150,000 had been collected from the tournament and that the amount was expected to increase to RM200,000 with contributions from state companies and individuals, and he himself would hand over the donation to Shaaban next week. – Bernama


Pahang MB orders probe into claims that logging affected Sg Pahang water level
NOR AIN MOHAMED RADHI New Straits Times 1 May 16;

KUANTAN: Pahang Menteri Besar Datuk Seri Adnan Yaakob has ordered technical agencies to immediately investigate reports that the critical drop in the Sungai Pahang water level was caused by excessive logging and land clearing, particularly in Hulu Tembeling.

“I have read the report in the newspapers, which to me was fair.

"I have called for an immediate investigation by the technical agencies over the matter,” he said after a charity golf event between the Menteri Besar team and the alumni of Sekolah Menengah Sains Sultan Ahmad Shah here today.

He said it was not fair to say that only Sungai Pahang is experiencing a critical drop in water level when the country is experiencing extreme hot weather due to El-Nino.

“I am not living in denial, but that is the fact. But at the same time I also did not deny the fact that land clearing for oil palm cultivation and logging had taken place there alongside hydroelectric project in Jelai and Tekal.

“We must be fair too by allowing an investigation to take place before any conclusion could be made,” he said. Recently, it was reported Sungai

Pahang’s shallow state is being attributed to a number of factors including logging, clearing of land for oil palm cultivation and soil erosion.

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