Malaysia: Logging of Ulu Muda forest may affect rice farmers in Kedah

Natalie Heng The Star 23 Apr 13;

Logging may reduce the water storage capacity of two important dams in Kedah.

THE DENSE vegetation within the Ulu Muda forest complex in Kedah is a crucial feature of the region’s water storage capacity. Topographically speaking, the landscape forms one large drainage system, with its contours directing water to a collection point, such as a river or a lake.

In Kedah, the two most important collection points happen to be the Muda and Pedu dams, key water sources for 95,588ha of padi fields.

Managed by the Muda Agricultu-ral Development Authority (Mada), the fields supply Malaysia with 40% of its rice output.

Prof Chan Ngai Weng of the School of Humanities at Universiti Sains Malaysia explains how logging within the Ulu Muda forest could impact water supply:

Usually, dense foliage will intercept falling rain, breaking its impact so it drips steadily downwards. As the water trickles through leaf litter and into the soil, it is filtered and drains out as clean water into streams. Without forest cover to soften the impact of rainfall, water gushes over bare earth, breaking up soil and carrying sediment into rivers.

“In terms of domestic water supply, siltation can clog up water treatment plants and incur higher maintenance costs,” says Chan. “Other potential side effects of logging, such as soil erosion, sedimentation, water pollution, landslides and downstream flooding can also have a negative impact on local economies and industries.”

Hor Tek Lip, director for dam management and water resources at Mada, is concerned over the long-term effects of logging. He fears that increased siltation will reduce the overall storage capacity and lifespan of the Muda and Pedu dams, which supply 32% of the irrigation needs of Kedah’s 55,130-strong farming community.

Hor says that the dams are important “controlled” sources of water. “During the rainy season, water is stored in the reservoir. We then release this water during the dry season, which enables farmers to plant not one, but two crops per year.”

Phang Fatt Khow, a retired officer from the commodity development division within the Agriculture Department, explains the interconnected nature between water supply, rice yields, and farmer income: “A farmer will get up to RM1,500 per tonne of rice, including subsidies, and in Kedah the average yield per hectare is five tonnes, whilst the average Mada plot size is 2ha.”

Do the maths and each farmer makes around RM15,000 per growing season, although Phang says production costs bring the nett income down to around RM12,000 – an average of RM1,000 a month. Double cropping, enabled through water supplied by the dams, doubles that income to around RM24,000 per year, which is why Phang thinks it is important to avoid any activities that might jeopardise the storage capacity of the dams.

So what if, over years of logging within the forest, sedimentation leads to a reduced water storage capacity within the Muda and Pedu dams?

Ironically, the stakes for such an eventuality are only rising. One of Malaysia’s Economic Transformation Programme’s Entry Point Projects happens to be a scaling up of padi farming in the Muda area – to double the current yield to eight tonnes per hectare.

Mada general manager Datuk Abdul Rahim Salleh says to reach the target, they aim to triple the current irrigation density of 10m of canal per hectare of farm. “The more canals there are, the more efficient water distribution will be to the crops.”

Mada is worried about the impact of logging on water supply. Minutes from a meeting with the Kedah Forestry Department a few months ago show Mada’s position is that logging within the dam catchment area should not be allowed. However, where projects have already been approved, there must be an erosion control plan. At that meeting, the Forestry Department also clarified that an old commitment to gazette 121,008ha of forest reserve as water catchment forest was merely a proposal and the need for other uses for the forest has to be considered.

Currently, 32,000ha of Ulu Muda Forest Reserve falls under water catchment forest and 92,575ha (88%) is “production forest”.

Kedah Forestry Department director Ku Azmi Ku Aman says logging in the state is scattered. “We practise sustainable forest management and do selective logging, which doesn’t do as much damage to forest cover as clear-felling.” He says forestry guidelines only allow for the cutting of six to seven trees per hectare. The maximum volume of timber that can be taken is capped at 68 cu m for virgin forests and 61 cu m for secondary forests, and this is prioritised over the number of trees that can be felled.

The process, Ku Azmi explains, requires an inventory to be conducted of the trees within the logging site. “Our men tag which ones are to be logged and which ones, such as important fruit trees for birds, or tualang, are not to be touched. We also conduct silviculture and replanting activities after logging is complete, ensuring at least 32 residual and mother trees are maintained for regeneration.”

Considering the Ulu Muda Forest Reserve’s Environmentally Sensitive Area Rank 1 status and its crucial role as a water catchment area, many have questioned whether any Detailed Environmental Impact Assessments (DEIA) have been carried out to determine the negative impact from the logging.

However, environmental regulations state that only logging sites measuring 500ha and above are subject to an EIA. Within the Ulu Muda Forest Reserve, the average concession size is between 80ha and 300ha. Ku Azmi says the department deliberately granted smaller concessions in order to minimise the impact of logging.

Forestry Department deputy director-general Datuk Nik Mohammad Shah Nik Mustafa says although no DEIAs have been done for the logging compartments, a macro-EIA, a general EIA for the entire state, was conducted in 2009. He says DEIAs are not needed for each site due to the scattered and low-impact nature of the activity. He says logging for each site is done on a rotational basis over a 30-year cycle, “although forest cover can be almost back to normal after just three years.”

Still, some find it difficult to believe that any kind of logging can go ahead without having some impact on the water quality. Phang, who is ex-chairman for Malaysian Nature Society Kedah, says selective logging still involves a heavy amount of collateral damage – roads must be built and heavy machinery is involved in the cutting and transportation of logs. “All this contributes to soil erosion and increased sediment in surface runoff into rivers.”

A question that has cropped up repeatedly is whether Kedah should be compensated for loss of income should it discontinue logging within Ulu Muda.

The state derives about 12% of its income from forest resources.

Kedah Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Azizan Abdul Razak says logging is done legally according to a yearly harvest quota of 2,800ha and generates royalties and tax revenues of between RM1,200 per ha (for secondary forest) and RM1,700 per ha (virgin forest) per ha. Logging within Ulu Muda brings in about RM10mil annually.

He says the state is open to other options, such as using the forest for the sale of carbon credits. Amidst reports on Kedah’s rising debt, the chief minister has repeatedly called on the Federal Government to make good on its compensation promises.

The main points of contention behind the logging of Ulu Muda – water and food security – are issues of national, not just state, interest.

Media reports highlighted that Kedah wants to charge Penang three sen per cubic metre of water.

Ku Azmi says it has been suggested that Mada request for Federal funds to compensate the state for not logging the forest reserve.

Aside from asking the Federal Government to deliver on its promise for compensation to Kedah, the Friends of Ulu Muda, a coalition of non-governmental groups, has also suggested the establishment of an Ulu Muda Trust Fund. This fund is to be paid for by beneficiaries of water sourced from Ulu Muda, such as the Penang Government, private companies and the public. The concept has not garnered much traction yet.

Recurring threats
The Star 23 Apr 13;

TEN YEARS ago, the Federal Government stepped in to stop Kedah from logging one of Malaysia’s most important water catchment areas – the Ulu Muda Forest Reserve.

The vast reserve is the source for 80% of Penang’s clean water supply, and contributes to roughly 70% of water in Kedah, and a slightly lesser amount in Perlis, according to water resource expert, Dr Chan Ngai Weng. He was amongst the cacophony of voices that pushed the issue of water security into the limelight back in 2003, when the state proposed to use heli-logging at Ulu Muda.

It was proposed as a less environmentally damaging alternative to conventional logging but an Environmental Impact Assessment revealed that it would still entail construction of 414km of logging roads; soil erosion from this alone would silt up rivers.

Despite the Federal Government’s compensation offer to the state of RM100mil annually, the issue over logging at Ulu Muda never really went away. Of the patchwork of forests that make up the Muda water catchment area, the Ulu Muda Forest Reserve is the most important by virtue of its sheer size. Gazetted as Permanent Reserved Forest in 1932 and spanning 105,060ha, it makes up 64% of the 163,003ha land mass collectively known as the greater Ulu Muda forest complex. The complex consists of of seven Permanent Reserved Forests: Ulu Muda, Pedu, Chebar Kecil, Padang Terap, Chebar Besar, Bukit Keramat and Bukit Saiong.

Back in 2003, PAS had said it would gazette Ulu Muda Forest Reserve as a water catchment area, if elected. When it gained power in 2008 and the RM100mil in compensation stopped coming, Kedah’s new chief minister, Datuk Azizan Abdul Razak, did an about-turn. Repeated requests for the Federal Government to make good on it’s compensation promises went unheard, and so the state announced that it had no choice but to log the area, to fund development in the state.

Recently, various blogs carried images of murky rivers in the catchment.

“The river in front of where my lodge is located used to have a rocky river bed. It was crystal clear. But today, it is sandy,” says Hymeir Kamarudin who runs Earth Lodge. “I didn’t think much of it. I figured it was residual erosion from previous logging in the 90s. That is, until the middle of last year, when the river turned the colour of teh tarik after heavy rains.”

The forest is important not just in terms of water security, but also biodiversity. The Ulu Muda landscape is littered with majestic tualang trees which can grow up to 50m high. Its many salt licks attract large herbivores such as elephants and sambar deer, which in turn attract large predators, such as the elusive tiger. It is also one of only two locations in Malaysia, where you can find all 10 species of hornbills – including the rare and threatened plain-pouched hornbill.

Since 2000, licences have been given out to log 19,000ha, of which 5,500ha have already been logged. Researchers fear that logging might interfere with the roosting sites of the plain-pouched hornbills.

Chan says that without a proper cost-benefit analysis, politicians often find it difficult to make informed decisions about whether to exploit natural resources.

“For example, one might want to investigate what options we will have if our forests no longer supply us with ample clean water. How much would it cost to treat the polluted water, or buy clean water, from somewhere else?”

A 2009 study on the economic benefits of the Muda water catchment conducted by the World Wide Fund for Nature Malaysia showed that it contributes RM157mil to Kedah and RM139mil to Penang in terms of annual water supply. – By Natalie Heng