Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Kluang Water Woes

The Letter to the Editor below was sent to both New Straits Times and the Star about a week ago. Usually these newspapers would print my letters but I assume the editors would not print this specific letter as they would probably presume that it might feed to the anti-oil palm lobby although the issue is more about the management of watershed or water catchment areas.

The Editor
New Straits Times
31 Jalan Riong

Dear Editor,                                                                                         

I really sympathize with the people of Kluang and the nearby communities of Paloh, Chamek and Niyor. Imagine how they had to struggle to ensure that they would have sufficient water supply during the recent Chinese New Year especially for the customary family reunion dinner. Ironically, while they were suffering, the water resource-rich state of Johor was and is supplying a substantial amount of water to the Republic of Singapore via the nearby Linggui Reservoir and many other reservoirs in the state, and at the same time is also supplying water to the water-poor state of Melaka from Sg. Muar at Gersik.

So, what went wrong?  There is a familiar maxim "If you fail to plan, then you plan to fail". The bureaucrats, technocrats and politicians of Johor failed to plan for their own, the people of Kluang and its vicinity. There are two Semberong rivers supplying most of the water to the community (somehow the locals lacked the imagination to come up with viable names for the rivers), Sg. Semberong Timur is a tributary of Sg. Endau and it has no impoundment, so the water treatment plant withdraws raw water direct from the river for treatment. Unfortunately, the water catchment upstream is about 80 % with oil palm plantations such as FELDA Kahang Barat, FELDA Hulu Belitong, Ladang Sindora and Ladang Bukit Lawiang. There are some forest reserves such as Hutan Rizab Renggam and Hutan Rizab Kluang but the forested watershed area is relatively small. Most of the plantations do not comply with the guidelines of conserving the riparian or buffer zones along the riverbanks – palm trees have been planted right up to the riverbanks.

Meanwhile, Sg. Semberong Barat, which joins Sg. Bekok near Parit Raja, is a tributary of Sg. Batu Pahat. The water treatment plant withdraws raw water from an impoundment but the water catchment area is small and without forests of notable size. Instead, the watershed is nearly 100 percent agriculture (mostly oil palm plantations) and human settlements such as FELCRA Batu 67, Kg. Seri Lalang and Kg. Baru Seri Lalang. There is also a large area of pasturelands developed by the Department of Agriculture next to the reservoir.

So, what is wrong with oil palm plantations within water catchment areas especially considering oil palm's average evapotranspiration is lower than that of forested watershed (1300 mm versus 1400 mm)? The main problem is that oil palm plantations do not retain the baseflow due to two major factors. Firstly, an oil palm plantation usually has lots of drains and channels which drain water out of the plantations and secondly, the soil compaction within oil palm plantations is higher than forested catchment and even rubber plantations. Therefore, rainwater does not infiltrate down to the groundwater, which later would be the baseflow for the streams and rivers. It means that while naturally forested water catchment still has baseflow coming out of springs into the streams even after three months of drought, water catchment with mostly oil palm plantations' baseflow would dry out within a short period of time. It seems that with this knowledge, we should realize that although oil palm plantations are economic boons for the country, water resource-wise, they are a bane.

Everyone would agree that water resources are important but unfortunately the importance is not usually converted to appropriate actions. Bureaucrats, technocrats and politicians happily designate an area as "water catchment" without considering the actual work that needs to be done, such as ensuring that the upstream of the water intake should be forested and therefore protected from being converted into agricultural entities such oil palm plantations. This is what happened to the Sg. Semberong Timur and Sg. Semberong Barat water catchment areas.

It is not too late to repair the damage but political will is very much needed to decrease the ratio of oil palm plantations versus natural forests in the water catchment areas.

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Maketab Mohamed
Chairman, Malaysian Nature Society, Johor Branch

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Gunung Ledang, 21 February 2010

Gunung Ledang, 21 February 2010
On the Peak of Gunung Ledang after the MNSJ Strategic Planning

Malaysian Nature Society, Johor Branch


I am the present Chairman of the Malaysian Nature Society, Johor Branch (MNSJ) (2010-11) and was duly elected as the President of the Malaysian Nature Society at the 63rd AGM at Taman Rimba Lagenda Ledang, Tangkak on 25th Sept. 2010. It is MNSJ's standing policy to engage directly with the relevant Federal and State agencies/departments on issues related to Nature and the Environment. This non-hostile approach is more effective than the hostile "in your face" attitude but we would have our say if necessary.


About Me

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Skudai, Johor Bahru, Johor, Malaysia
I am an academician in Universiti Teknologi Malaysia situated in the southern state of Johor, Peninsular Malaysia. My fields of expertise are watershed management, water quality and water quality modeling. I did my B. Sc. and M. Sc. at the University of Iowa (1978 - 83) and worked for the Department of Environment (DOE) until 1990, when I joined UTM and later did my PhD in Watershed Science at Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colorado. I was the Chairman of the Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) Johor from 2006 - 2011. I was the President of the MNS from 2010 to 2014.