Malaysia proposes to amend environment act to curb haze from forest fires

Reuters 27 Apr 16;

Malaysia is proposing to amend an act to allow the government to seize control of land where big fires are discovered, as part of its long-term efforts to curb haze from slash-and-burn forest clearing techniques usually linked to palm oil plantations.

The palm oil sector in top producers Indonesia and Malaysia has been facing criticism for deforestation and its land-clearing methods that send vast plumes of smoke across Southeast Asia every year. Indonesia has already taken measures to reduce the industry's environmental impact, with the latest being a moratorium on new palm oil concessions.

Malaysia is also set to get tough on forest fires with its proposal to amend the country's Environmental Protection Act, Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar, the country's natural resources and environment minister, said on Wednesday.

Under the amendment, "it will not matter if the land is owned by smallholders or plantation giants, as long as there is a substantial fire the government will take control of the land," Wan Junaidi said at a press conference.

The amendment, however, is not likely to be made in time to curb fires this year, Wan Junaidi added, without providing any further details on it.

"The haze situation this year is potentially worse as Malaysia is already facing moderate haze due to local fires, and the coming monsoon winds will only bring in more haze from Indonesia," he said.

Malaysia and Indonesia produce about 90 percent of global palm oil, used in everything from cooking oil and soaps to chocolate and cosmetics.

(Reporting by Joseph Sipalan, writing by Emily Chow; Editing by Himani Sarkar)

Hurt nature and risk losing land
MAZWIN NIK ANIS The Star 28 Apr 16;

PUTRAJAYA: Natural Resources and Environment Minister Datuk Seri Dr Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar (pic) is looking at the possibility of introducing new laws that give the authorities the power to confiscate land whose owners carry out open burning or other activities detrimental to the environment on the land.

Dr Wan Junaidi has yet to discuss the matter with his ministry’s officers, but said he believed that there must be laws that were deterrent enough to stop people from endangering lives and the environment.

“This is an idea that I have. I need to discuss this with the ministry’s officers and the legal department. I also need to get input from the Attorney-General to see if this is something that can be done in Malaysia,” he told reporters after attending the Cabinet meeting.

Dr Wan Junaidi said he would gather officials around the discussion table to look into this idea and would submit a proposal paper to the Cabinet if this could be done.

He said there must a way to stop people from carrying out open burning on their land or get them to better care for their property so that it would not contribute to pollution and haze.

“We face the same problem every year and this has to stop,” he added.

He said a hefty fine was not deterrent enough for some as companies making millions would not think twice about paying a RM500,000 fine for causing fire to the land, pollution and indiscriminate waste dumping.

This year, three fire incidents – in Kuala Baram mangrove area in Miri, peat swamp forest reserves in Klias and Keningau, Sabah, and Kuala Langat forest reserve in Selangor – caused haze.

Between January and April 25, 1,460 cases of open burning were detected at forest reserves, mangrove areas, construction sites, landfills as well as agriculture and industrial plots.

From 2014 till April, authorities collected compounds amounting to RM1.213mil just from those who committed open burning.

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Malaysia: Weather expected to return to normal by end of May

BERNAMA New Straits Times 27 Apr 16;

KUALA LUMPUR: The hot weather due to the El Nino phenomenon which is currently sweeping the country is expected to return to normal by the end of May, according to the Malaysian Meteorological Department’s National Geophysics and Weather Operations Centre meteorologist Khairul Najib Ibrahim.

He said this was following the damp weather conditions with rain and thunderstorms occurring in the afternoon in most areas of the country, which is expected to gradually reduce the effects of the phenomenon.

“This condition (wet weather) involves a number of areas including the West coast of the peninsula, the western and central parts of Sarawak, and several divisions in Sabah.

“This comes as the country is undergoing a transitional monsoon phase where the prevailing winds are usually weak and bring rain with thunderstorms in the late evenings, and sometimes extends until early next morning, especially on the West coast of the peninsula,” he said when contacted by Bernama here today.

El Nino occurs when the water surface temperatures in the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean rises considerably higher than average, leading to changes in air circulation patterns.

The phenomenon which has lasted since February, has also resulted in a number of states experiencing water supply problems as the water levels in several major dams have decreased.

However, Khairul Najib said the heat wave status for Peninsular Malaysia as of yesterday (26 April) still showed relatively high temperatures recorded in the northern and central regions of the Peninsula, as well as the interiors of Sabah and Sarawak.

“Maximum temperaturse of between 35 and 37 degrees Celsius was reported to have occurred in several areas including Gua Musang in Kelantan, Jerantut in Pahang, Jempol in Negeri Sembilan, as well as Mersing and Segamat in Johor.

“The temperatures in Sabah and Sarawak are still at normal levels, except in a few areas, namely Kota Marudu, Tongod and Beluran in Sabah, and Limbang in Sarawak,” he said.

Meanwhile, the hot and dry weather also caused a decline in water levels involving several dams in Johor, namely Sungai Lebam in Kota Tinggi, Congok and Mersing and Sungai Layang Masai in Johor Baharu.

National Water Services Commission (SPAN) Resource Management and Engineering deputy director Khithob Ahmad said the drop in water levels was caused by the prolonged hot weather in the country.

“Rain only occurs in several areas in Johor, but rarely in catchment areas.

“Accordingly, SPAN will continue monitoring with water supply operators in the country to ensure there is sufficient water supply. We will also try to find solutions to overcome the water supply problem during the dry season,” he said.

However, he said in the event of water shortage, SPAN will regulate the water supply in the affected areas.

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Malaysia: Hot weather keeps firemen busy

NICHOLAS CHENG The Star 28 Apr 16;

KUALA LUMPUR: The hot weather sparked an overwhelming majority of fires, keeping firemen busy throughout the country.

Fire and Rescue Department deputy director-general (operations) Datuk Soiman Jahid said that of the 124 fires reported across Malaysia yesterday, 108 were caused by the searing El Nino phenomenon.

He said firemen responded to as many as 93 bush fires and battled blazes in 18 forests yesterday, while also being called in to douse 15 house fires and three open-burning cases.

However, cases have halved from the 276 fires that were ignited by the heatwave during equinox day on March 21, he said.

Terengganu, which recorded a temperature of 33°C yesterday, had the most number of bush fires with 26 cases. Pahang and Kelantan reported 15 and 11 cases respectively.

There were seven forest fires in Kelantan yesterday, said Soiman, adding that those fires have already been put out.

Selangor recorded four forest fires, the biggest of which is occurring in the South Kuala Langat forest reserve where about 13.8ha of peat soil are burning.

Sabah reported four forest fires.

Despite the hot weather being a crucial factor in the many number of fires in nature, Soiman believed that people had a hand in most of the cases, too.

“Fires don’t automatically happen. It’s due to humans, too, maybe someone threw a cigarette butt or was doing open burning.

“A lot of things can cause fires, especially now because of the weather.

“If anyone sees a fire, please alert us immediately so we can take quick action. Or else, a small fire could spread and become a big problem,” he said.

The Air Pollutant Index readings as at 5pm yesterday showed good-to-moderate air quality nationwide, with the exception of Kuala Lumpur, which dipped to unhealthy levels with a reading of 113.

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Indonesia: Drought hits E. Nusa Tenggara

Djemi Amnifu Jakarta Globe 27 Apr 16;

A long dry spell and food scarcity are hitting a number of areas in East Nusa Tenggara. The region is bracing for low rainfall throughout 2016.

According to the Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency ( BMKG ), this year’s dry season started in April, earlier than usual.

“Rain still falls over a number of areas such as Ngada, Manggarai, and West Manggarai, but the rain does not fall evenly. Thus, it is predicted that there will be a food crisis in East Nusa Tenggara,” Tini Thadeus, the province’s Regional Disaster Mitigation Agency ( BPBD ) head, told journalists in Kupang recently.

With very low rainfall, it is likely that East Nusa Tenggara will also suffer a water crisis, she went on to say.

Two villages in East Flores have reportedly been hit by drought and the regency’s BPBD is currently helping the villages by allocating them Rp 1.1 billion ( US$83,301 ).

“A Rp 900 million fund has been allocated for the development of drilled wells and the remaining Rp 200 million will be used to distribute water for residents over the next several months,” said Tini.

She said the East Nusa Tenggara BPBD had sent letters that officially outlined the drought problems to local administrations. The BPBD has branches in all regencies and municipalities across the province.

To handle the food crisis, Tini said the government had prepared an emergency supply called “Rastra”, an abbreviation of beras kesejahteraan, ( rice for the people’s prosperity ). Local administrations in all regencies and municipalities have also prepared rice reserves amounting to 100 tons. The rice will be used to tackle food scarcity and natural disasters.

Tini further explained that the East Nusa Tenggara governor had prepared 200 tons of rice, which would be distributed to the people once rice supplies prepared by the regency and municipality administrations had run out.

She said 200 tons of rice prepared by the provincial administration could be sent and distributed to the people once local administrations at the regency and municipality levels had sent a request letter. Without a request, the provincial administration would not be allowed to supply the rice.

Tini said that in the last seven years, there had been no supply requests submitted by local administrations in any regency or municipality in East Nusa Tenggara. ( ebf )

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U.S.: This massive Florida seagrass die-off is the latest sign we’re failing to protect the Everglades

Chris Mooney The Washington Post 27 Apr 16;

EVERGLADES NATIONAL PARK, Florida — The shallow coastal waters of Florida Bay are famed for their crystal clear views of thick green seagrass – part of the largest stretch of these grasses in the world.

But since mid-2015, a massive 40,000-acre die off here has clouded waters and at times coated shores with floating dead grasses. The event, which has coincided with occasional fish kills, recalls a prior die-off from 1987 through the early 1990s, which spurred major momentum for the still incomplete task of Everglades restoration.

“It actually started faster as far as we can tell this year,” said James Fourqurean, a Florida International University marine scientist who studies the system. “In the 80s, it continued to get worse for 3 years.”

Fourqurean and government Everglades experts fear they’re witnessing a serious environmental breakdown, one that gravely threatens one of North America’s most fragile and unusual wild places. When most people think of the Everglades, they envision swamps — but sea grass is just as important, if less romanticized.

Besides being the home to majestic sea turtles, dolphins, and manatees, Florida Bay also hosts pink shrimp, spiny lobsters, spotted seatrout, and much more – sport fishing alone here is worth $ 1.2 billion per year, according to the Everglades Foundation.

And although there is at least some scientific dissent, Fourqurean and fellow scientists think they know the cause of the die-off. It’s just the latest manifestation, they say, of the core problem that has bedeviled this system for many decades: Construction of homes, roads, and cities has choked off the flow of fresh water. Without fast moves to make the park far more resilient to climate change and rising, salty seas, the problem will steadily worsen.

The Everglades ecosystem “being out of balance at a time of climate change is really going to have a huge impact on South Florida, if we don’t do something about it,” said Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, who surveyed the sea-grass die-off last week during an Everglades Trip.

Holding dead grasses in her hand in a National Park Service boat in the more than half-a-million-acre estuary, Jewell told a group of staff and reporters, “This is what we get when we don’t take care of Florida Bay.”

Florida Bay encompasses roughly one-third of Everglades National Park. And like the park’s mangroves and sawgrass prairies, it relies on the same broad water system. Both need fresh water to flow southward from Florida’s Lake Okekchobee, and the central part of the state, to preserve their unique characteristics. And both have suffered from highway and water management projects that have blocked or diverted much of this water away.

“It’s basically a permanent manmade drought, created by the drainage and development patterns to the north in the Everglades,” said Robert Johnson, director of the National Park Service’s South Florida Natural Resources Center, on the boat trip with Jewell.

The sea-grass die off, according to Johnson, was caused when this perennial problem was further exacerbated by a 2014-2015 South Florida drought.

Flows through Shark River Slough, which feeds water to the Everglades and eventually Florida Bay, plunged to just 200,000 acre-feet in 2015. That’s just a quarter of standard annual flows, which themselves are less than half of historic flows of 2 million acre-feet per year before major projects blocked and redirected the Everglades’ water.

The center of the bay then heated up last summer, saw considerable evaporation, and became quite salty – for some parts of the bay, twice as salty as normal sea water.

“It’s a really delicate balance between how much freshwater comes in each year, how much rainfall falls, and then how much evaporation occurs,” Johnson said. “In the absence of rainfall, salinity takes off in the bay, and we get a lot of harmful impacts of that.”

In very salty conditions, waters hold little of the oxygen that sea grasses need to live. At the same time, other marine organisms turn to a different “anoxic” process – one that goes forward without oxygen – that has a nasty by-product: hydrogen sulfide.

The chemical “is a notorious toxin,” said Donald Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. “It kills life, including human.”

And that’s just the beginning. Once the sea grass dies off, it becomes a feedback – the water becomes filled with dead grasses that release nutrients, and those can stoke huge algal blooms (which happened the last time around, but so far have not appeared en masse). That clouds the water and prevents light from reaching remaining sea grasses, which then also die, because they need the light for photosynthesis.

“You have this water that’s notoriously gin clear water, because the sea grasses and the biology kept the light penetrating, and then all of a sudden it changes pretty dramatically to a system without grass, and very turbid waters,” Boesch said.

Granted, there are some dissenters. Brian LaPointe, a researcher with Florida Atlantic University, contends that Florida Bay seagrass die-offs are caused by the runoff of too many nutrients, like nitrogen, into the Bay’s waters, which in turn stoke algal blooms. “There really isn’t a correlation over time of high salinity and problems in the Bay,” LaPointe said.

Seagrasses, he said, “can handle pretty high salinities.” During the last dieoff, a large scientific debate erupted over whether changes in salinity were indeed the cause.

But Boesch, who led a scientific review of the last die-off during the Clinton administration (which failed to reach a conclusion at the time), said that the high-salinity explanation “has now become kind of the mainstream scientific explanation,” although that now encompasses other related processes involving oxygen content of waters and buildup of hydrogen sulfide.

It’s not just Florida Bay: Seagrasses the world over are threatened. In a 2009 study, scientists found that segrass extent had declined globally by 29 percent since the late 19th century. They concluded that seagrasses were just as threatened as their companion coastal ecosystem, coral reefs, though the latter tend to get far more attention.

The Obama administration, in collaboration with Florida state agencies and local leaders, has been moving lately to simultaneously restore historic Everglades water flows and to try to safeguard the park against climate change.

President Obama visited last year, telling his audience that “You do not have time to deny the effects of climate change…nowhere will it have a bigger impact than here in South Florida.”

And this year Jewell visited the Everglades on Earth Day to announce a $ 144 million “bridging” project that will elevate 2.5 miles of Highway 41, more popularly known as the Tamiami Trail, which connects Miami to Tampa and runs through the Everglades. Constructed in the 1920s, the highway impairs water flow southward, from Lake Okeechobee, into the Everglades (and, eventually, the Bay). It’s like a dam across the famed “river of grass.” Lifting it could restore a substantial part of historic freshwater flow levels.

But that will take years – the project should be completed in 2020 — too long to stop the current sea-grass die off from running its course and perhaps having many cascading effects, scientists fear.

And it’s not just nature that needs this fresh water: It’s people.

South Florida, the home to 6 million people now and growing steadily, relies on the Biscayne aquifer, which is refilled by the Everglades, for drinking water. The aquifer’s water flows through limestone that is quite porous, which means that saltwater and freshwater can both penetrate it.

In effect, two walls of water abut one another, facing off — and for the sake of nature and people alike, freshwater needs to hold its ground. If inadequate freshwater flows southward in Florida, then Florida Bay can get too salty even as the seas also creep into the Everglades, potentially causing land to subside and sink – but also penetrating the aquifer and threatening drinking water.

In short, it’s bad news across the whole system.

And even as governments at the local, state, and national level move faster to send the Everglades and the Bay more fresh water, the question remains just how much climate change will worsen problems like the sea-grass die-off. After all, it will raise seas, increase air and water temperatures, and perhaps drive more droughts as well.

“The questions I would ask, from a climate perspective, going forward, is first of all, are we going to have more conditions of really high temperature, due to, you know, the atmospheric warming, coupled with these extended periods of still water?” Boesch said. “Are we going to have longer periods of drought in the Everglades?”

Boesch said that while higher temperatures are a given, precipitation patterns are difficult to predict, but notes that there is some reason to fear South Florida could get drier in the future.

“What happened to the Bay is very much a climate change issue,” Jewell said in an interview during her Everglades tour. “It’s tied in to a drought. Now, is the drought tied to climate change? None of us could tie any single hurricane or storm event or drought to climate change, but we do know that the weather here is getting more extreme. And we do know that those extreme weather patterns are having a dramatic impact on our ecosystems, as we saw today on Florida Bay.”

Still, much of Florida Bay remains unaffected – for now. That includes an area of lush seagrass meadow near a small island named Johnson Key. A trio of bottlenosed dolphins approached the National Park Service skiff there, and as the boat trolled slowly through the clear, only 3- to 4-foot-deep water, started to lead the way ahead of it.

Nonetheless, the second major sea-grass die off in three decades certainly suggests that something has changed recently in the system. “The really disturbing thing is, this unprecedented event has now happened twice in my career,” Fourqurean said.

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