Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Log on, folks - and prepare for more floods! (revisited)

A Statement In The Public Interest (written 16 years ago... and still relevant)

JUNE 10, 2003 – Yet another serious flood in KL, rescuers in dinghies paddling down Jalan Masjid Jamek in the heart of the city. Plaza Putra aswirl in chest-high muddy waters. Dozens of cars and motorbikes drowned. Actors Studio and Dama House wiped out within minutes...

A terrible shame, as floods have been recurring with increasing fury since the early 1970s – long before the proliferation of underground carparks and basement complexes made the potential hazard to life and property truly grievous. And yet, with all the talk of multi-million-ringgit flood mitigation schemes (mainly getting City Hall to keep drains and rivers free of garbage and silt), the situation keeps deteriorating.

I wasn’t particularly impressed when I read the government’s immediate response: the suggestion that “smart tunnels” be constructed to drain floodwaters directly to the sea – an extremely expensive business indeed, with the potential of wreaking further havoc on our coastal ecosystem and perhaps even causing giant sinkholes. Now, the PM may be extraordinarily brilliant as a political strategist but when it comes to environmental problems, he instinctively avoids looking at the root causes and seeking authentic solutions.

Our obsession with economic growth and physical development – and our utter lack of respect for Nature’s workings – lie at the core of our worsening environmental woes.

So much rain falling and instantly turning into flash floods means only two things: the forest canopy has been thinned out through logging, so there’s nothing to soften the impact of heavy rains on hillslopes. Not enough trees to act as a sponge, slowing down the speed and volume of drainage. And the rainwater cannot run off into the ground because so many areas have been paved over in the overnight growth of our big cities.

It has never been more obvious that logging must be abolished with almost immediate effect. There is no such thing as “sustainable” when it comes to destruction of watersheds. It simply has got to stop. True, many jobs hinge around the timber industry – and many private fortunes too. But one may as well argue that the slave trade promotes the GDP and should therefore be licensed and allowed to continue indefinitely.

Indeed, logging is by far a more heinous crime than even the slave trade, which may inflict psychological trauma on its victims, but nothing a dose of freedom won't heal. A despoiled landscape, however, may never fully heal and the environmental consequences impact on everyone – especially future generations.

By now it must a dim wit indeed who doesn't see the direct link between reckless deforestation and the deteriorating environment – whether in terms of massive erosion which leads to rapid silting, hence increased flooding; or deadly landslides caused by human disrespect towards 550 million-year-old hills. And, of course, with patches of green lungs decreasing by the hour, the air itself progressively becomes unbreathable and a perpetual source of respiratory disorders.

I see at least half a dozen lorries laden with logs trundling along the roads every single day. In the middle of the lush Ulu Yam-Sungai Tua forest reserve – now a well-visited recreational area every weekend – loggers have been hard at work. Around the once-verdant foothills near Kuala Kubu Bharu, logging proceeds with impunity. The Forestry Department seems to have learned nothing about conservation since the 1960s when ecological studies began pouring in, showing the hazardous ill-effects of profit-driven logging, especially in watersheds and hillslopes.

Most of the hills surrounding the Klang Valley have long been shorn of their green canopy – hence the dramatic changes in rainfall patterns over the last two decades.

Perhaps a handful of timber tycoons (and the officials on their unofficial payroll) have made a pretty pile – but in the long run the public must bear the high cost of replacing bridges, repairing roads, desilting canals, dams and rivers, not to mention the immeasurable damage to property and the disruption of business caused by worsening flash floods.

For every 10 million ringgit earned by logging concessionaires, the long-term cost to the public purse may well be in the region of 100 million. Measured in macro-economic terms, logging is no longer a viable “economic activity” - simply because we cannot afford its costly negative consequences.

Rather than spend money on stop-gap flood mitigation measures, we have to bite the bullet and stop wreaking irreparable ruin on our precious forests and the few remaining green lungs in our towns and cities. Indeed, we need to work out a systematic and sustained campaign to heal our badly scarred landscape – by planting flowering shrubs and fruit trees on every denuded hill, so that within a few years, even though we have lost our forests, at least the hills will once again be cool, fresh sanctuaries, serving as filters for airborne pollutants and self-renewing sources of oxygen.

Most importantly, they would no longer contribute to the tons of mud that cascade down with every heavy downpour. Now, such a move would constitute what I would define as visionary leadership.

What happens when wood is no longer a cheap and freely available commodity? Well, here's where the innovative use of alternative materials can spawn a whole new generation of industries. For a start, we might consider ways to recycle PVC waste and combine it with organic fibers to produce weatherproof planks. Hemp grows like a weed and can be used in countless ways – from pulp products to fiberboards, fabrics and cosmetics.

The incredible versatility of hemp 

My fervent hope is that within the next few years, the only way we can possibly log on is to the Internet. This would give those involved in the timber industry sufficient time to diversify and seek less dangerous and destructive means of livelihood. Meanwhile, an extremely strict watch must be placed on those responsible for issuing logging permits.

[Originally posted 13 June 2003. Reposted 3 April 2010]