November 28, 2015

Malaysia’s Wetlands: The Silent Crisis

Malaysia’s Wetlands: The Silent Crisis

Endangered mangrove forests like these, along with Malaysia's other wetland habitats, provide functions essential to various ecosystems. Photo Credit: Überraschungsbilder via Wikipedia

When people think of the Malaysian wilderness, they likely imagine dense jungles, picturesque islands, beautiful white sand beaches and colorful coral reefs.  These are defining characteristics of the natural environment in Malaysia and should be celebrated and protected, but so should another vitally important and somewhat lesser-known landscape – wetlands.

Wetlands are some of the world’s most important and productive environments.  Covering about 9% of the earth’s surface, they have been vital for human survival since the dawn of man.  Wetlands improve water quality by filtering out pollutants, providing large societies with water for drinking and irrigation.  They support an unusually high amount of plant and animal species compared to other environments, acting as keystones for ecosystem biodiversity and providing breeding grounds for commercially important fish.  They decrease the risk of floods by slowing down flood waters and releasing water over time.  It’s also estimated that wetlands store around 35% of global terrestrial carbon, keeping it from overloading the air and water.  Essentially, wetlands provide stability, filtration and renewal for many of the global environment’s natural processes.

Malaysia has an extensive area of wetlands.  The Malaysian Wetland Directory lists 105 wetland sites including mangroves and mudflats, river systems and tropical peat swamp forests.  They directly provide relief for many of the developmental problems Malaysia is experiencing – water shortages, overfishing, biodiversity loss and flooding – and they are rapidly disappearing.

Pollution, urban development, agriculture and land reclamation are edging wetlands out of the picture in Malaysia.  The country’s mangroves have declined over 45% from an estimated 1.1 million hectares to the current estimate of 564,970 hectares.  Much of this decline is the result of peatland draining and replanting for oil palm plantations.  In 2005, 25% of all deforestation in Southeast Asia was on peatlands.  This drainage and replanting results in seasonal fires like the ones in Indonesia this year that have ravaged enormous areas of forest, caused a haze epidemic and released more CO2 than the entire US Economy.  Malaysian governments have made laws against improper wetland use, but illegal agriculture and development continues.

Wetland disappearance has also created a real problem with flooding and coastal erosion.  An estimated 29% of Malaysia’s 4,000km coastline has been classified as facing serious erosion.  The coastline of Tanjung Piai in southern Malaysia, for example, is losing up to 9 meters per year to erosion.

The problem for Malaysia is critical, and requires immediate attention.  The erosion, habitat loss, release of CO2 and species extinction attached with the decline of Malaysia’s wetlands threaten the country’s environment, society and economy.

Organizations like the Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) are running wetland conservation programs, but they need more support.  Check out our article on MNS’s wetlands program for more information and to get involved.

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