(This article can also be read at the Penang Institute in KL Column in the Malaysian Insight, 23rd July 2017)
WHAT does an elephant wildlife sanctuary have in common with semiconductor production? Both require a supply of clean water to be sustained. Last week, I had the opportunity to visit the Sungai Dua Water Treatment Plant which is run by the Penang Water Supply Corporation (Perbadanan Bekalan Air Pulau Pinang or PBA for short). This water treatment plant supplies more than 80% of the water used by residential and commercial users in Penang.
The Sungai Dua water treatment plant’s water source is the Ulu Muda Forest Reserve, which is where I also spent a few days. The reserve also serves as the water catchment area for the Muda dam as well as the Pedu and Ahning dams. (See below)
Most Malaysians have never heard of Ulu Muda, let alone visited this national treasure. It is home to 50-60 wild Asian elephants (the estimated total population in Peninsular Malaysia ranges between 1200 to 1600).
I was fortunate enough to spot two schools of elephants during my first evening in Ulu Muda as our boat was slowly gliding down the river. Other than the Asian elephant, Ulu Muda is also inhabited by other large mammals including tapirs, sambar and barking deers, spotted leopards, sun bears and the agile gibbons, as well as 10 species of hornbill including the helmeted, great and rhinoceros hornbills. We spotted many groups of hornbills flying in majestic formation during our evening rides down the river.
Apart from the animals, there are vast varieties of plants and insects in the forest including the tualang tree, which can hold over a hundred beehives and the kundur trees with their massive buttresses (see below).
Sadly, logging of the secondary forest, which has been ongoing for many years, is starting to edge closer and closer to the areas critical to the elephant habitat, namely the salt licks. These are areas in the forest that produce minerals consumed regularly by the elephants and other large mammals to supplement their diet.
(The Ayer Hangat Salt Lick, the only salt lick which is also a hot spring. Notice the elephant droppings all around the place)
We spotted an old logging road skirting the bank of the Muda dam and upon visiting the area where the logs were collected before being transported out, we found plans for a new road going into the heart of the Ulu Muda forest reserve, very close to the eco-resort where we were putting up.
This sort of irresponsible logging not only has a significant impact on the animal and plant life in Ulu Muda, but it also will have an impact on the quality of water supply to the residents in Kedah and Penang.
As it is, the many years of logging on the outskirts of Ulu Muda have turned the river brown with sand and sediment. If more and more logging is allowed, it is possible that the quality and quantity of water taken in at the Sungai Dua treatment plant may be jeopardised.
Of course, the state government of Kedah will argue that it needs revenue from logging for its coffers. One way in which the Kedah state governments (or any state government in Malaysia, for that matter) can be compensated for keeping its forests intact is through international funding under the Reduce Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (or REDD+) initiative. Funding, for example, is available through the Forest Carbon Partnership Facility (FCPF) and in South-east Asia, our neighbours Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam are part of this initiative but sadly, not Malaysia. The federal government needs to work together with the relevant United Nations bodies under the UNFCCC framework so that a clear and transparent path towards obtaining funding through REDD+ can be obtained. Strong leadership from federal government on this matter has become even more urgent given that irresponsible parties and companies are trying to dupe certain state governments into participating in so-called REDD schemes.
A semiconductor plant, which requires a regular and clean supply of water, may seem very far removed from the elephant sanctuary in Ulu Muda, but in fact, they are part and parcel of a larger ecosystem. The preservation of the Ulu Muda water catchment area, which is part of the elephants’ habitat, is crucial to ensuring a clean and regular water supply to the largest water treatment plant 200km downstream in Penang.
* Dr Ong Kian Ming is the Member of Parliament for Serdang, Selangor and is also the General Manager of Penang Institute in Kuala Lumpur. He holds a PhD in Political Science from Duke University, an MPhil in Economics from the University of Cambridge and a BSc in Economics from the London School of Economics.