Protecting River Ecosystems within the Central Forest Spine of Peninsular Malaysia

The forest within the central forest spine of Peninsular provides refuge to a diverse  range  of species and also plays a role in sequestering carbon from the atmosphere to provide oxygen and supplying water. The management of the river basin including its upstream areas which  are  typically natural forests ecosystems, are crucial for the continuous supply of water. Rivers and to a wider context, the water that it provides, is very important for the wellbeing of the people living within this landscape, from the rural interior to the urban jungle of the city centers.

Ulu Muda Water Catchment area is an important water source for about 4.09 million people living in Perlis, Kedah and Penang. Ulu Muda provides for 96% of Kedah’s water supply needs, 70% of Perlis’s water supply and more than 80% of Penang’s water supply needs. Given the importance of Ulu Muda, it is crucial that it be safeguarded and conserved.

Within the context of Malaysia, in general there is a lack of  economic  incentives  available  for State governments, who are responsible over their state’s land  resources  management  to  conserve  and  protect  their  forested  areas.  The nature of our   Federal-State wealth distribution automatically removes the incentives for land owners to choose forest conservation over logging business, since the latter generates revenue, but not the former. In the case of Ulu Muda, for instance, logging activities could cause degradation of the forest ecosystem thereby affecting Ulu Muda’s capability to serve as a water catchment area and excessive forest land clearing could cause soil erosion and sedimentation thereby affecting the quality of the river water.

In 2018, Hasanah supported a NGO partner, Water Watch Penang to start the journey to engage with local communities, private business and government agencies in the state of Kedah, Penang and Perlis to develop a vision and roadmap for the conservation of Ulu Muda in Kedah. In addition to engaging with stakeholders, several workshops have been conducted  in  Kedah  and  Penang     to explore governance models and financing mechanisms towards management of Ulu Muda as a protected area. This includes but not limited to: market based mechanisms including payment for ecosystem services**, polluter’s pay principle, trust fund for conservation, and other more creative ideas such as, “green” insurance, where investments could be channeled to conservation projects. The process is on-going and will be important in developing The Roadmap Towards Ulu Muda Water Catchment Protection which is targeted to be completed by early 2020.

This journey and effort by Hasanah and partners has been acknowledged by the new government of Kedah. In fact, the Menteri Besar of Kedah and his cabinet have been actively engaging with federal ministries and international agencies to support the protection of Ulu Muda and thereby also generate new and alternative financing streams for the protection of Ulu Muda.