Malaysia: Protection of the Ulu Muda water catchment forests hinges on all to play their role

WWF 28 Apr 16;

28 Apr 2016, Petaling Jaya: WWF-Malaysia refers to recent articles which have highlighted the water crisis in the northern region of Peninsular Malaysia entitled, “Sungai Muda irrigation must stop, Kedah told”, The Malay Mail, 19 April; “Penang fears ‘super drought’, calls for drastic actions”, The Star, 16 April, 2016.

Based on the newspaper reports, the CEO of Penang Water Supply Corporation (PBAPP), Datuk Jaseni Maidinsa, raised concerns on the adequacy of water supply due to low water flow in Sungai Muda which supplies 80% of water to Penang. While we welcome the measures proposed to ensure adequate water supply during this dry period such as water conservation measures, one of the measures proposed, which is the postponement of irrigation activities in the northern region will, in our opinion, affect rice production and impact thousands of farmers.

Water from the Sungai Muda originates from the Ulu Muda water catchment forest located in Kedah. This catchment forest provides 32% of the water supply for the irrigation needs within the Muda Agricultural Scheme, the biggest granary area in the country, our nation’s rice bowl. According to the 2013 Paddy Statistics, this area supplies close to 40% of our nation’s rice production and will contribute hugely to Malaysia’s target of achieving full self-sufficiency in paddy production by the 2020. In 2013, Malaysia imports about 34% of the country’s rice needs, costing our coffers approximately RM1.5 billion annually. Malaysia’s 2014 Agrofood Statistics records that there were 340,000 people or 55,130 farmers families who are dependent on this granary area with agriculture contributing between 60-70% of their source of income. Simply said, 40% of our rice production and the livelihood of these farmers stems from the Ulu Muda water catchment forest. If these forests were impacted, we may never achieve our vision of being self-sufficient in rice – resulting in us relying heavily on imports and costing us billions annually.

The Ulu Muda water catchment forest is also of utmost importance in ensuring water security for the northern region. Apart from supplying 80% of Penang’s water, about 96% of Kedah’s water supply comes from this catchment area. In 2005, the Muda catchment contributed RM157 million to Kedah and RM139 million to Penang in terms of annual water supply for domestic and industrial use. The economic benefits of clean and reliable supply of water, however, extend beyond the value of this amount because many industries in Penang and Kedah, such as in the Kulim High-Tech Park and the Bayan Lepas Free Industrial Zone, as well as businesses such as the hospitality industry are water intensive or water dependent. In a nutshell, Kedah’s and Penang’s economies depend on the Ulu Muda forests.

The protection of Ulu Muda forests in totality is necessary not only to sustain the water security and economy of both Penang and Kedah but also the nation’s rice production which is the staple diet of our people. This year’s drought can be blamed on the El Nino weather pattern, but this is only a precursor to future climate change, which will cause even more uncertainty in weather patterns and therefore, our water security in the future.
As such, WWF-Malaysia adds our voice to the call from the Minister of Energy, Green Technology and Water for the protection of water catchment areas (Ministry seeks closer state-federal ties as water crisis looms, The Malay Mail 21 April, 2016). Notwithstanding the vital role the Kedah state government plays in the protection of this catchment area, parties which derive benefits from the protection of Ulu Muda such as the Penang State Government and the Federal Government must also play their part in this call for protection.

While it is noted that the downstream reaches of Sungai Muda flows naturally through Penang, the source of this river is undeniably the water catchment forest of Ulu Muda, located in Kedah. There are costs, including opportunity costs, associated with the protection of the catchment forest which needs to be offset through an enabling environment and fair financial mechanisms.

Therefore, we urge all parties to recognise the vital role that Ulu Muda forests play not just in contributing to water security in the northern region but to economic growth and food security of the nation. In line with the 11th Malaysia Plan we call on the Federal government to assist the state governments to valuing the total economic contribution of the Ulu Muda forests to Penang’s, Kedah’s and the wider national economy as well as to food security. In conducting this valuation, other ecosystem services such as soil protection and flood mitigation also needs to be taken into account. Most importantly the right enabling environment and workable sustainable financing mechanisms need to be identified and implemented to ensure that the state government are able to offset potential revenue loss from conserving the forests as water catchment forests. As the nation shifts towards green growth, all parties – the state and federal governments - need to work together in partnership to find solutions to secure the protection of the Ulu Muda forests and the services it provides for the benefit of the nation.

Dato’ Dr Dionysius Sharma
Executive Director/CEO