Forest and Water


KUALA LUMPUR, March 19 (Bernama) -- In 2005, there were just less than four billion hectares of forests worldwide and deforestation continued at an alarming rate of about 13 million hectares per year, mainly involving clearing of land for agriculture. On top of that, on average, 104 million hectares of forests are destroyed each year by forest fire, pests or climatic events such as droughts and floods. These were some of the significant findings of the Global Forest Resources Assessment 2005 conducted by Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. Forest is one of the most valuable eco-system in the world as it represents over 60 percent of the world's biodiversity. It's significant in both ecological functions and in protecting the freshwater resources. Many products of economic value can be harvested from the forest besides being the `home' to the native peoples of the world. Despite its phenomenal importance, deforestation is slowly wiping out forests from the Earth's surface and accelerating global warming.

Link between Forest and Water
Prof Dr Chan Ngai Weng describes forest, especially hill and highland forests and their immediate environments as delicate natural systems. When disturbed, they can bring about disastrous consequences not only on the components of such systems but also ultimately on human society. "When a forest doubles up as water catchment area, the benefits it can bring are much higher than the number of logs that can be extracted. "Such benefits include ecological functions, erosion control, flood control and biodiversity," says Dr Chan who is the President of Water Watch Penang (WWP). He cautions that history and the scientific literature have shown development of hill forest can cause serious irreversible consequences on both its immediate environments as well as the downstream environment, often with a cumulative effect. "Some glaring disasters related to deforestation are the Highland Towers tragedy, landslides near Genting Highlands and mudslide in Pos Dipang (Perak)," he adds.

Highland Forests
According to Dr Chan, deforestation of highland forest (also known as montane forest) leads to the loss of precious water resources. Many water researchers and forestry experts have established that one of the main functions of highland forest is to capture moisture entering the forest ecosystem via condensation on the leaves, grass and other vegetative surface. "These highland forests are part of a unique microclimate where the temperature is always low with extremely high humidity. As a result, there is always a layer of mist, fog or cloud surrounding the forest," says Dr Chan who is also a professor in the Geography Department at Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM), Penang. This is why it is also known as cloud forest. "In Malaysia, cloud forest is found in the highlands like Cameron Highlands, Fraser's Hill, Genting Highlands and also the highlands of Sabah and Sarawak.

Depleting Water Resources
The loss of hill forest can result in the loss of water resources. Without the trees much of the moisture will remain in the air until the normal rainfall process occurs. More significantly, says Dr Chan, is the fact that without the dense forest, whatever moisture in the atmosphere is then subjected to the wind system. "The wind will then carry the moisture and deposit it elsewhere. For example return it to the ocean untapped," he explains. A deforested area will not be able to hold and retain the moisture, both in the air and in the soil. "When the entire natural hydrological cycle is disrupted, it often culminates in environmental hazards such as landslides, flooding at downstream and loss of water catchment function. "These events have become increasingly common in Malaysia in recent decades as more and more hill forests are being rapidly and haphazardly developed. As deforestation is accelerated, the water resources will be further reduced. Hence, the protection of hill forests, the main source of our water, is the first crucial step for the sustainable development of our water resources," says Dr Chan.

When Highlands Becomes Lowlands
Protecting the hill forest is not only a concern for Dr Chan but also for R. Ramakrishnan who was born and bred in Cameron Highlands. He is the President of REACH, the acronym for Regional Environment Awareness Cameron Highlands, a community-based organisation established in 2001 by a group of concerned residents on the highland. He voices his anguish over what he claims as rampant clearing and warming of the highlands. "When I was a boy growing up in Cameron Highlands, nobody could leave the house in the morning without a thick jacket. The whole of Cameron Highlands would be covered with mist. Now you will see the mist once in a blue moon," says Ramakrishnan referring to how it was some 30 years ago. He adds that even though the birds are still chirping in Cameron Highlands, but they are not the same anymore. "Birdwatchers in Cameron Highlands noted the presence of lowland birds such as the rhino hornbill, black eagle, mountain bulbul, Asian brown flycatcher and mynah. "The migration of the lowland birds to Cameron Highlands is a clear indication that the highlands are warming up. "At the same time, some of the indigenous species such as the Malayan Whistling Thrush and Silver-Eared Mesia are becoming extinct. The Silver-Eared Mesia feeds on fruits from trees growing by the river and most of these trees have been chopped down," laments Ramakrishnan.

Save Belum-Temenggor
Logging, legal or illegal, is one of the main causes of deforestation besides agriculture, cattle-ranching and construction of large hydroelectric dams. The Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) launched a vigorous campaign last year to save the Belum-Temenggor forest reserve in Perak from the onslaught of logging activities. This 300,000-hectare forest reserve is believed to be over 130 million years old. Besides being a major water catchment area, it is also home to numerous plant species that supports over 270 species of birds and 100 species of mammals, including the endangered Malayan tiger and Sumatran rhinoceros. Though the campaign received wide support but the situation can't be reversed. However, MNS will continue to seek the participation of more people in the campaign to save the Belum-Temenggor Forest Reserve.

Awareness Campaign
Another avid environmentalist Datuk Dr Salleh Mohd Nor is concerned over the public apathy on issues pertaining to forest. He believes there should be an earnest campaign to instil public awareness in caring for the forest similar to the campaigns against smoking and `Love Your River'. "Most of the earlier campaigns were for short term. The society needs to be educated and reminded time and again. Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) have limited resources to do this on their own. "For the campaign on forests, government institutions such as the Forestry Department should be on the forefront," says Salleh who was the Director General of Forest Research Institute Malaysia (FRIM) from 1985-1995. Salleh quotes and old saying `we do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children and grandchildren'. But now the question remains what are we going to leave behind for our children?

By Melati Mohd Ariff, Bernama