Sunday, September 7, 2014

Sarawak rivers drying up by Rintos Mail,

Low river level in the upper Sarawak Kiri River during dry spell.
OVER the last couple of weeks, we had seen quite a bit of rain, and in some instances, very heavy downpours.
Showers have provided much needed relief for thousands of people who experienced acute water shortage between June and July.
However, this may just be a temporary relief as water scarcity will continue to stalk the state and the country as a whole.
Mankind’s insatiable thirst for water and deforestation activities seems to have pushed our most precious natural resource – water – to the brink.
Bodies of water, stressed by human consumption and forest clearing, are disappearing quicker than imagined.
Many of the world’s largest rivers, including the Yangtze, the Ganges and the Salween in Asia, the Danube in Europe and the Rio Grande in North America have become victimised by water demand and development – that they are in the process of drying up.
Rivers in Sarawak are not spared.
There are no studies to show the levels of rivers in Sarawak have fallen but a series of newspaper reports between June and early August appeared to have indicated so.
Here are some of the reports:
  • Baram is reeling from the effects of El Nino with the Baram River dropping to dangerously low level and becoming precarious to expressboats plying between Marudi and Long Lama. Taps from gravity-feed system running dry as streams dry up.
  • The dry season caused by the El Nino phenomenon has hit Lubok Antu. Water levels in rivers are low and waterfalls have literally “dried up.” Even the water level at the Batang Ai hydro dam has dropped.
  • More than 10,000 people in Saratok are experiencing acute water supply problem brought about by the dry spell and hot weather.The Nanga Lichok Water Treatment Plant, which supplies most of the clean water to the people in the Saratok, has dried up.
  • Consumers under the jurisdiction of the Public Works Department (JKR) Kuching and Samarahan in Bau, Asajaya and Puncak Borneo, will only receive water supply from the Kuching Water Board (KWB) between 8pm and 5am effective Aug 31.
  • This is because the El Nino weather phenomenon has caused very low river flow in water catchment areas of Sungai Sarawak Kiri, which is the main raw water source for KWB.
  • The prolonged dry weather in Simunjan has caused the raw water source at Lepong Dam to be depleted and the water supply from Simunjan WTP has, therefore, been considerably reduced. The water woes, as reported in these areas, have been caused by the rivers drying up. There are  many more rivers and water bodies at risk in the state.
Rivers are still a source of water supply in the rural areas.
What are the causes?
Three main factors lead to this phenomenon, according to Deputy Minister of Natural Resources and Environment Datuk Seri Dr James Dawos.
They are El Nino, clearing of forest in the water catchment areas and impact of climate change.
Dawos said the absence of rain due to El Nino had affected the water level in most rivers in Malaysia, including Sarawak.
“We are now in El Nino which may cause extensive drought and absence of rains.
“When there is no rain, of course river level will reduce or even dry up,” he added.
El Nino events are reported to be occurring irregularly – about every two to seven years and may last from 12 to 18 months.
The event begins with the weakening of the prevailing winds in the Pacific and a shift in rainfall patterns. It is associated with extreme weather – floods and drought – in countries surrounding the Pacific and much further afield.
During the period, prolonged dry periods may occur in Southern Africa, Northern Australia and Southeast Asia – which means Sarawak too is affected.
According to reports, the current increase in temperature and drought conditions could persist through to 2015.
Dawos, who is former State Environment Advisor, said like other parts of the world, the availability and quality of water in Sarawak are also threatened more and more by the clearing of forests in the water catchment areas.
He noted that forested catchments supply a high proportion of water for domestic, agricultural, industrial and ecological needs in both upstream and downstream areas.
He said under any hydrological and ecological circumstance, forests are the best land cover to maximise water yields, regulate sustainable flows and ensure high water quality.
“Conserving forest cover in upstream watersheds is deemed most effective in enhancing water availability not just for domestic but also agriculture and industrial uses.”
Dawos explained that deforestation disturbed the water cycle and trees were an important part of maintaining the state’s water resources.
By drawing up groundwater through their roots, then releasing it into the atmosphere through their foliage, trees play a significant role in the hydrologic cycle.
In addition, their roots also help to create large conduits in the soil which help water to infiltrate through the ground area; their trunks and stems help to stop surface runoff which contributes to erosion, and a large proportion of precipitation is intercepted by their leaf canopies and then re-evaporated back into the atmosphere.
Furthermore, the leaf litters and other organic residues from trees help provide a ground covering and increase the soil’s capacity to store water.
Trees literally control the amount of water available in the atmosphere, the soil or even in the groundwater.
Dawos, a trained specialist in forestry and environmental science, said areas that had been cleared of trees could not retain as much moisture in the ground and atmosphere and this very often led to a drier climate.
He added that forests transport large quantities of water into the atmosphere through plant transpiration, hence replenishing the clouds and instigating rain that maintains the forests.
Dawos said clearing forests also meant insufficient trees to convert carbon dioxide to oxygen and water vapour, which eventually led to global warming and climate change.
He noted that huge amounts of carbon dioxide were released into the environment, part of which came from Malaysia, due to industrial activities.
He said global warming and climate change posed a threat to water supply.
“Climate change is making hot days hotter, rainfall and flooding heavier and droughts more severe.
“Longer hot and dry periods will eventually result in low water level or rivers drying up,” he added.
Naturally, the amount of water flowing through a river is governed by two main sources – the source from which it takes its headwater and the level of precipitation in the area around it.
While a river that is constantly fed by large bodies of water may flow continuously, the levels of other rivers may lower considerably, or even dry up completely, during periods of low precipitation.
Some rivers can also dry up if objects such as dams are constructed to divert their flows in a different direction.
In some areas, rivers do not flow at all unless heavy rains have fallen, providing them with a temporary water source.
Dawos disagrees with suggestions that construction of dams are killing some of the rivers in the state.
He said dams actually helped control the flow of water and flood.
“When there is a dam, the government has to gazette the water catchment areas to ensure sustainable supply.”
To prevent rivers drying up, Dawos pointed out that water catchment areas should remain strictly untouchable while forest clearing should be reduced to prevent global warming and climate change.
A key challenge, faced by the state authorities now and in the near future, is to maximise the wide range of multi-sectoral forest benefits without detriment to water resources and ecosystem function.
To address this challenge, there is an urgent need for a better understanding of the interactions between forests or trees and water, for awareness raising and capacity building in forest hydrology, and for embedding this knowledge and the research findings in policies.
Similarly, there is a need to develop institutional mechanisms to enhance synergies in dealing with issues related to forests and water as well as to implement and enforce action programmes at state levels.
Everyone agrees water is one of the most important resources obtained from forests. It is vital for all living things. Careful forest management is necessary to ensure that our present and future water needs can be met.
Forests determine the quantity, rate and quality of water which flows into streams and hence into dams or reservoir.
A slightly higher level in Sungei Sarawak Kiri after showers.

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Pitcher plants by Tom McLaughlin.

Once the pitcher plant opens, the original bacteria is replaced by the micro-organisms introduced by the prey that fall in. — Photos by Mary Margaret
PITCHER plants (Nepenthaceae) have been well covered in these pages.
Books have been written about them, the idea that they serve as receptacles for urine from rodents has been discussed and discarded, and hundreds if not thousands of pictures have been taken.
We know the plants have sides that create a slippery surface leading insects to tumble down into the liquid.
Insects are attracted by the sugary nectar that is produced by glands at the edge of the pitchers (peristome).
Ultraviolet and visible light waves of the colour of the pitcher plants also attract insects.
If insects slip in, they cannot escape as the slippery waxy zone is between the zone of attraction and the digestive zone.
However, aerial pitcher plants, which prey primarily on flying insects, often lack a waxy zone.
It has been suggested that the shape of the pitcher prevents the escape of the prey.
When they tumble in, they drown and are digested by the acidic detergent-like digestive fluids.
Our next problem is to find out what micro-organisms live in the liquid that drowns the insects.
The fluid is highly acidic and could create a micro-environment for certain bacteria.
It would, after all, be considered to be an extreme habitat.
Filter feeding mosquito larvae are also able to survive in this acidic environment.
The first studies began with Dr JS Hepburn in 1918. He performed experiments on unopened, developing, and opened pitchers that had not caught any prey and regular open insect catching plants.
All samples were incubated in sterile conditions at 37 degrees Centigrade.
He reported no bacterial growth for the unopened plants and growth for all the others.
He concluded that the liquid was sterile and did not have any contact with the outside world until the pitchers were partially or fully open, allowing bacteria to enter.
The results were retested in 1993, 2007, 2010, 2011 and 2012 and they concluded that indeed the unopened liquid part of the plant is sterile and holds no micro-organisms.
However, all of these experiments were conducted in a temperate zone under strict laboratory conditions and did not reflect the habitat of the tropical rainforest in the wild.
The one that did achieve growth in 1998 thought it was a mistake.
For this experiment, three separate pitcher plants were selected in Selangor. Of these three, five separate plants were haphazardly selected.
For the opened pitcher plants, the liquid was poured into a sterile tube.
For the unopened ones, a sterile small needle was inserted in the base of the plant and the liquid was extracted and placed into a sterile tube. All samples were transported on ice to the lab.
After DNA analysis, the researchers did find bacteria growing in the unopened plants – an astounding discovery.
So why did the rest of the researchers get it so wrong? Possibly specialised bacteria, found only in the tropics, made themselves available to the unopened plant.
A second reason could be the movement of plants  from the tropical to the temperate zone could have altered the flora and fauna of the unopened plant.
A third reason is the greenhouses in temperate zones are kept to minimise bacterial growth.
The next question is how does bacteria get into the sealed unopened pitcher? It is speculated by the authors that there are microscopic openings between the lid and the chamber during development.
It is also surmised that secreatory tissues (the tissues that secrete the fluid) that line the chamber could possibly play a role.
The authors concede that future studies are required to test the two hypotheses.
The authors further proposed that there are two types of bacteria. One type is a native type that colonises the plant while still in development.
The second type involves those that are carried on the bodies of the arthropods that land in the chamber and are digested.
The first type is possibly transferred from one developing plant to another.
This study has produced three major findings.
First , the pitcher plants do have microorganisms living in the unopened fluid of the plant.
Secondly, once the plant opens, the original bacteria is replaced by the micro-organisms introduced by the critters that fall in for digestion.
And finally, bacterial communities vary by the particular species of the plant.
Adapted from ‘Bacterial communities associated with the pitcher fluids of three Nepenthes (Nepenthaceae) pitcher plant species growing in the wild’ by Lee Yiung Chou, Charles M Clarke, and Gary A Dykes; Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2014.
Aerial pitcher plants prey primarily on flying insects.
The Malaysian Nature Society

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Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Wetlands

By Miriam Chacko
Photo credits: Malaysian Nature Society Miri

SINCE A WRITE-UP on the wetlands of Sarawak would call for writing a book, I have decided to delve into an important component; the Peat Swamp Forest (PSF).

PSFs are said to cover 1.54 million hectares in Malaysia and according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) approximately 70% of it lies in Sarawak. A prime peatland is Loagan Bunut National Park, located 130kms from Miri on the periphery of Bunut Lake. Bunut Lake is the largest natural lake in Sarawak refueled by the Bunut, Baram and Tinjar rivers.

Living in Miri, we sometimes encounter birds and reptiles typical of wetlands while taking a stroll, peering through the window or even while waiting at a traffic light. They have adapted to perching on telephone wires, drinking out of open water drains, nesting in ceiling corners and slithering along tame lawns. It goes without saying that trekking through a protected wetland outside the city offers many more visual treats in terms of biodiversity. Along with Loagan Bunut National Park, Maludam and Kuching Wetland National Park are other gazetted areas rich in peat soil.

Swallow at LBNP.
Swallow at LBNP.

PSFs in Sarawak were traditionally unattractive to the local communities due to inaccessibility and unfavourable physical conditions. Evidence suggests that these forests have been used only for the last 200 years. However, those who gained access practiced more sustainable and conservative methods in tapping its resources. For example, the Tapang tree found in Loagan Bunut is traditionally popular amongst the indigenous people for making quality blowpipes. But in honoring the tree’s cultural importance, they used the trees that had fallen from natural causes instead of logging them.

Loagan Bunut National Park.
Loagan Bunut National Park.

Also, the tree is of more value to them standing as it attracts the Asian Giant Honeybee and is therefore a reliable source of wild honey. Yet another example of sustainable and traditional practice is Berawan fishing. The Berawan people of Loagan Bunut place their nets strategically to collect the migrating fish as the water level drops during the dry season. This technique is known as Selambau and continues till date.

With improved access to the wetlands, today, the locals are more interested in the agricultural use of peatlands as it generates revenue and provides direct value to them. Oil palm, coconut, pineapple, sago palm and rubber are the main smallholder crops.

Between 2005 and 2010, Sarawak lost 33% of its peatlands and 10% of its total forest cover due to logging and land conversion. Land conversion is an umbrella threat as it involves draining, burning, polluting, land reclamation, introducing non-native species and so on. The long and short-term detrimental effect of these actions on the wetlands and its surrounding environment is understood when realising the ecosystem services they provide.

For instance, a regulating ecosystem service wetlands provide is carbon sequestration. Wetlands sequester significant amounts of carbon through natural processes in plants and in sediments. Upon burning this ecosystem, the carbon that has accumulated over centuries is released as CO2 into the atmosphere in the matter of a few decades. Emissions from peatland drainage and peat fires account for nearly 6 per cent of global anthropogenic carbon emissions and about 25 per cent of carbon emissions from the land use sector.

Peat fires contribute to the haze that pervades the air around us during dry months. Slash and burn practices continue because the local stakeholders such as smallholders and estate managers view it as a tamable component of peatland use. The international conservation community, however, views the fires to be a threat due to its periodic and uncontrollable nature.

Ideally, these ideological differences can be reduced by increasing awareness, which in turn will improve the synergy amongst the different stakeholders. “…campaigns are needed that educate the global community about the situation faced by peatland users on the ground, and the local stakeholders about the wider and less tangible values of peatlands” (Cole et al, 2012).

Malaysia is involved in international efforts to promote the sustainable use of wetlands and has set up in-house management bodies to ensure the same. Such efforts include the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which is an international agreement aiming to advocate sustainable development by promoting all aspects of biological diversity including genetic resources, species, and ecosystems. The Malaysian government was one of the 150 that signed the agreement at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. In response to CBD, Malaysia set up a National Biodiversity Committee in 1994 to protect and manage the country’s biological resources and to ensure its fair and equitable use.

Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance (1971) is another international effort which focuses on wetland ecosystems. The Ramsar mission defines itself as “the conservation and wise use of all wetlands through local, regional and national actions and international cooperation, as a contribution towards achieving sustainable development throughout the world.”

Stork Billed Kingfisher.
Stork Billed Kingfisher.

The Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance (including Kuching Wetlands National Park among 5 other Malaysian sites) identifies wetlands from different geographical locations on account of their significance in terms of ecology, botany, zoology or hydrology. Once they are on the list they are considered significant not only to the countries in which they are located, but for humanity as a whole.

These international conventions create opportunities for discussions and increasing awareness amongst the various stakeholders including government, management bodies and NGOs and can cumulate support (monitoring, funding and research) for the conservation and restoration of the ecosystem in question.

UNDP in 2002 in trying to meet the objectives of CBD and the Ramsar Convention funded projects in Malaysia including one in Loagan Bunut which focused on promoting integrated PSF management. The project faced challenges such as staff shortage, administrative delays and wavering commitment from stakeholders. Nevertheless, the 5 year effort was successful in raising awareness and providing training required for stakeholders to carry out the project activities.

Whiskered Tern at LBNP.
Whiskered Tern at LBNP.

The shortage of research on ecosystem service processes of Sarawakian wetlands currently limits the scope of converting international conservation interest into action. Challenges of monitoring and funding also come in the way of realising the scope for effective conservation. On paper, the solution is a multi-sectoral integrated management approach but on the ground, it struggles to become a reality. These truths reveal the state of wetlands in the region and also reveal the trends that challenge conservation efforts country wide.

Appreciating the wetlands of Sarawak and acknowledging that its health affects our well-being is important in garnering support to protect it.

A glimpse of the mysterious Irrawaddy dolphin

By Patricia Hului
THEY ARE CHARISMATIC and playful. Yet their friendly and fun nature has been exploited for marine tourism all over the world.
Tourist-packages like dolphin-watching and swimming with dolphins are among the tourism activities revolving around these highly intelligent animals.
Here in Sarawak, we are the only state in Malaysia that has commercial dolphin watching as a tourism activity.

GOODBYE SHORE: One of the two boats we rode on during the dolphin watch.
GOODBYE SHORE: One of the two boats we rode on during the dolphin watch.

In Kuching, dolphins can be found in Kuching Bay which encompasses the area from Telaga Air to the west and the Bako peninsula to the east, as well as the rivers that connect these areas, Sungai Sibu Laut, Sungai Salak and Sungai Santubong.
The Malaysian Nature Society Kuching Branch (MNSKB) held a guided dolphin watching trip on Aug 24.
This lead-up activity to the Santubong Nature Festival (November 8 – 9) was jointly organised with Permai Rainforest Resort and supported by Kuching City North Hall and Sarawak Museum.
Over a dozen members of MNSKB, members of the public and media boarded two boats heading to the mouth of Santubong and Salak rivers.
As the boats stopped hundreds of meters away from Pulau Kera at Kuching Bay, all of the dolphin watchers managed to catch sight of at least four Irrawaddy dolphins riding the waves.
It could have been beginner’s luck; due to the behaviour of these dolphins, the participants were warned of the possibility of not seeing any dolphinsat all.
The educational boat ride was cut short due to rain and choppy waves splashing everyone on board.

A windy, choppy day to be out dolphin watching.
A windy, choppy day to be out dolphin watching.

Unfortunately, we only managed to catch blurry images of these dark Irrawaddy dolphins as the choppy waves made the boats unsteady and the Irrawaddy dolphins were too swift.
Still, everybody who signed up for the trip did not leave empty handed as during this trip to educate the participants on these lovely cetaceans was Cindy Peter, a research fellow from Institute of Biodiversity and Environmental Conversation (IBEC) University Malaysia Sarawak (Unimas).
“The opportunity came back in 2008 when I finished my degree. I wanted to do something about wildlife again because I studied wildlife management for my degree,” said Cindy as she remembered how she got involved with dolphins studies in Sarawak.
The opportunity was as a research assistant for Sarawak Dolphin Project (SDP) which was launched in May 2008.
SDP was a project founded through a MoU between Unimas, Sarawak Forestry Corporation and Sarawak Shell Berhad where they focused on the four dolphin species most commonly found in Sarawak waters, Irrawaddy dolphins (Orcaella brevirostris), finless porpoises (Neophocaena phocaenoides), Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins (Sousa chinensis) and bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops aduncus).
Through this project Cindy was able to continue her master research in 2009 to study Irrawaddy dolphins in Kuching bay.
Cindy shared that for her studies, “I looked at the habitat preferences, how far from the river mouth they prefer and as well as the population number.”
She pointed out that through her masters studies there are about 150 to 200 Irrawaddy dolphins in Kuching Bay and Bako-Buntal area and about 150 finless porpoises in that area.
A question was raised to Cindy whether this population of dolphins in Kuching was growing or not.
Cindy shared, “It is hard to say whether the population is increasing or not because last time back in 2008 no one knew how many dolphins there were.
“Only now that we have the number,” she said “we have to continue monitoring. Only then we knew the number increasing or decreasing.”
What does the future hold for dolphins in Sarawak? Cindy hoped that she could study the morphometric and genetic makeup of Irrawaddy dolphins for her PhD, believing that the gene pool for the population here could be different from the ones they found in Australia and Indo-China.
“And another thing we are hopefully looking into is acoustics. Acoustics is the study of dolphins and whales’ sounds,” Cindy stated.
So far, the study of dolphins in Kuching bay has been restricted due to the dry season from March until October and daytime for safety precautions.
Little is known about what the dolphins do during the wet season.
She explained, “Using acoustics, we want to deploy equipment in certain areas and we want to see at what time they were there and they are doing.”
Currently there are no dolphin studies using boat surveys being done.
“We are now looking into the economic value of dolphin watch here in Kuching because we know it is a blooming interest, an economic importance but no one knows how much profit it is bringing to the state,” Cindy said.
“It is hard to say if it is affecting the population here. That is why everyone emphasised Safe Dolphin Watch, not only is it safe for us humans but also safe for the dolphins.”
According to Cindy, there is always risk when there is wildlife and human interaction anywhere even on the lands.
“If it is done responsibly, it is safe for the animals.” Cindy emphasised on not feeding or touching the dolphins as we do not know what disease they might have.
Boaters are highly advised to drive their boats in a predictable manner and avoid sudden changes of direction.
Cindy also shared that any complaints on irresponsible dolphin watching by any tour operators can be made to the Sarawak Tourism Board.
These dolphins are protected under several laws here in Sarawak; Fisheries Act 1985, Fisheries (Control of Endangered Species) Regulation 1999 and Wildlife Protection Ordinance 1998.
Unlike their land counterparts, it is hard to know what these marine mammals are doing underwater.
Hence for Cindy, studying dolphins has always been intriguing for her as dolphins are mysterious.
The Irrawaddy dolphin is only one of the animals that call the vast spread of Santubong offshore home. Back on the dry land of Santubong Peninsula, many more animals are waiting to be discovered.
One of the ways to discover Santubong is by joining SNF where MNSKB are giving environmental awareness on both the natural and cultural values of the Santubong peninsula.
For more information on Santubong Nature Festival email to or visit