ASSISTANT Minister of Environment Datu LenTalif Salleh explains the environmental issues and the challenges facing the state with regard to the implementation of its development agenda in this interview with thesundaypost.
Q: What is the state’s approach in dealing with pressing environmental issues such as the side effects from plantations and logging?
A: To continue with the state’s development agenda, especially for much-needed infrastructure and public utilities in both urban and rural areas, there is need to generate revenues through projects and activities such as forest harvesting, mining and agriculture plantation.
However, the implementation of this development, if not regulated, will have impact on the physical and chemical, ecological and biological, and the socio-cultural components of the surrounding environment.
Therefore, the state has enacted the Natural Resources and Environment (Cap 84, Laws of Sarawak) Ordinance, 1993 (NREO) to facilitate and regulate development in order to mitigate the residual impact of these development and prevent irreversible degradation of environment.
To help execute this environmental law, the state has established the Natural Resources and Environment Board Sarawak (NREB) on February 1, 1994.
In the case of plantations and logging, these developments are listed as prescribed activities under the Natural Resources and Environment (Prescribed Activities) Order, 1994 and, therefore, project proponents are required to carry out an environmental impact assessment (EIA) study so that appropriate guidelines and mitigation measures are put in place to minimize impact to the environment.
In addition, developers are required to submit quarterly Environmental Monitoring Report (EMR) on the compliance to the approval conditions and progress of development.
Post-EIA monitoring and regular site visits are carried out by NREB enforcement officers to ensure compliance with the EIA terms and approval conditions.
Environmental awareness and outreached programmes are also carried out to enlighten the public and developers alike of their collective roles in environmental protection.
Other related legislations for the management of natural resources and protection of environmental include The Public Parks and Green Ordinance, 1993; The Sarawak Rivers Ordinance, 1993; The Water Ordinance, 1994 (Replacement of the Water Supply Ordinance, 1954); The Biodiversity Centre Ordinance, 1998 and The Wildlife Protection Ordinance, 1999.
Q: Along the same line, what is the state’s approach in looking after the main water catchment areas?
A: The major causes of degradation of water quality in many parts of the world are from anthropogenic sources.
These include unregulated land development, illegal harvesting of timber and mining activities, direct discharged of polluted water and dumping of wastes into rivers, stream, lakes, drains and water bodies.
In Sarawak, our precious water resources, especially the water catchment areas, are well protected through the enactment of Water Ordinance in 1994.
Under this ordinance, the state has gazetted many strategic water catchment areas to protect water resources of these catchment areas and strictly controlling and regulating development activities surrounding and within the main and important water catchment areas to prevent degradation of water quality in the affected catchment areas.
To date, the state has already gazetted more than 1.0 million hectares as Water Catchment Areas under the provisions of the Water Ordinance, 1994.
Q: How about the issue of wastes management, especially in the rural areas, where about 50 per cent of the state’s population of 2.6 million still live and where there is no proper waste management?
A: As our society becomes more affluent, so will the volume of municipal wastes generated increase in both urban and rural populations.
Unfortunately, most of these wastes are not easily degradable and could be hazardous to human health.
As such, there is pressing need to properly manage these wastes as indiscriminate disposal of solid wastes can pose severe environmental pollution, safety and health risks to the surrounding population.
Unlike the urban areas, the inavailability of proper waste disposal facilities in rural areas, especially in remote and isolated settlements, has resulted in widespread and indiscriminate dumping of wastes under houses, roadsides, valleys, streams, rivers and water bodies as well as open burning.
These can contribute to environmental hazards such as air pollution, contamination of drinking water supplies, aesthetic problem and the spread of rodents and diseases.
This is where the Village Security & Development Committees (Jawatankuasa Kemajuan dan Keselamatan Kampung-JKKK) should play active role within their community in conducting regular collection and disposal of wastes activities in their respective villages via gotong-royong practices.
In addition, the local representatives together with the relevant government agencies such as the Natural Resources and Environment Board (NREB); the Sarawak Rivers Board (SRB); the Department of Environment (DOE) Sarawak; the Drainage and Irrigation Department (DID); city and local councils and the Resident and District Offices in the respective divisions have carried out environmental and health talks to create greater awareness among the rural communities on the need to maintain healthy environment surrounding their villages.
The promotion of 3Rs – reduce, recycle and reuse of wastes – organised by local councils and local NGOs can help to reduce incidence of indiscriminate disposal of municipal wastes and extend the lifespan of landfills.
Similarly, extending the wastes collection facilities to many accessible rural populations can help to reduce illegal dumping of wastes.
Q: How is your ministry tackling issues such as wastes management in urban areas where the landfill is not sanitised?
A: Following the reshuffling of State Cabinet in early 2012, solid wastes management is directly under the purview of the Local Government and Community Development Ministry.
For information, most of the municipal wastes, generated in the urban areas, are collected and disposed of in designated landfills by respective local councils.
There are now 49 solid waste disposal sites in the state under the jurisdiction of the respective Municipal-District Councils of which only five are sanitary landfills which include Kuching Integrated Waste Management Park (KIWMP) in Mambong (Level 4); Kampung Sadir in Padawan (Level 1); Meradong in Sarikei (Level 2), Kemuyang in Sibu (Level 3) and Sibuti in Miri (Level 3).
The rest of the landfills are just open dumped sites without proper leachates treatment facilities and some are already reaching their full capacity.
Leachates from the open dumpsites, if not properly treated, can result in contamination of both surface and underground water resources. Beside the leachates, open dumping of municipal wastes also can cause odour, flies, rodents, landfill gases and waste scattering which give rise to a lot of environmental problems and public health issues.
To address this, my ministry together with the Local Government and Community Development Ministry will try to seek adequate federal funding to rehabilitate closed landfills, construction of new sanitary landfills and upgrade the existing facilities in order to address all environmental issues associated with waste management.
There is also a need for the development of an integrated waste management centre to cater for the needs of few smaller councils.
As an interim measure, all the local councils are urged to take proactive measures to properly manage and maintain their existing landfills.
The Natural Resources and Environment Board will continue to monitor the management of these facilities to prevent direct discharged of leachates into surrounding water bodies.
Public awareness programmes such as 3Rs (reduce, reuse and recycle), composting and reducing the usage of plastic and non-degradable materials will help inculcate positive values in the general public on the need to properly manage solid wastes disposal in the State.
Q: How would you describe the progress of the Heart of the Borneo project?
A:The Heart of Borneo (HoB) Initiative is a voluntary transboundary co-operation of three Asean nations – Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia – based on principles of sustainable development through research and development, sustainable use as well as other activities relevant to transboundary management, conservation and development.
The HoB Initiative is envisaged to cover a largely forested area totaling some 22 million hectares in one contiguous block straddling the Malaysia/Indonesia/Brunei Darussalam border on the island of Borneo.
Ministers from Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia have signed and jointly issued a declaration in Bali, Indonesia on February 12, 2007. Under this Bali Declaration, the three neighbouring countries pledged to co-operate and co-ordinate programmes on conservation and environmental protection in the targetted areas, fully respecting each other’s sovereignty, policies and development needs and priorities for the benefit of present and future generations in terms of transboundary management, conservation and development within the areas of the HoB.
The HOB Initiative is nothing new to the state of Sarawak as transboundary conservation had been initiated by ITTO way back in 1994.
The HoB is just a rebranding-repackaging by WWF and 2.1 million hectares (10 per cent) of the size of the state is within the boundary of HoB project.
The Implementation of the HoB is country driven and hence, monitored by both National and State focal points. As for the state of Sarawak, the Forest Department serves as focal agency and secretariat for HoB project. The NREB together with other ministries and agencies are members of the Technical Working Group of HoB Initiative.
Q: Can you comment on the persistent haze problem (open burning) affecting Sarawak?
A: Haze in Sarawak, which occurs normally during dry Southwest Monsoon between July and October, is caused by local farmers still practising shifting cultivation, small holders converting their native customary lands for cash crops like oil palm and rubber as well as management of biomass from land development through controlled open burning.
So far, the state is able to control the haze from local sources – thanks to the concerted efforts of all parties, especially environmental agencies like NREB and the Department of Environment (DOE) Sarawak which relentlessly carry out continuous monitoring and enforcement activities to deter incidence of illegal open burning.
The implementation of the Natural Resources and Environment (Fire Danger Rating System) Order 1997 is also effective in controlling haze locally whereby disposal of biomass from land development is being regulated through issuance of controlled open burning by the Natural Resources and Environment Board (NREB) Sarawak.
However, haze pollution can become serious due to transboundary haze from neighbouring Kalimantan, Indonesia, and illegal open burning locally.
At the same time, the Malaysia government through the Asean Sub-regional Ministerial and Technical Working Group, is working closely with Indonesian government to control and reduce transboundary haze pollution.
Q: What is your ministry’s approach in rehabilitating and revitalising urban environment such as green areas such as parts and rivers?
A: There are several approaches in rehabilitating and revitalising urban environment, including open spaces, green areas and rivers.
For the development activities listed under the Natural Resources and Environment (Prescribed Activities) Order, 1994 such as realty and infrastructure developments, project developers are required to undertake the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) study and the EIA Report has to be approved by the NREB before any project can start.
Among the approval conditions for the EIA Report are the requirement to rehabilitate the area by planting turf grass or trees, and an adequate river buffer zone.
The project proponent is also required to submit its quarterly Environmental Monitoring Report (EMR) to the NREB which include the progress of the project and its water quality reports to ensure the quality of rivers is not degraded.
Besides, the NREB will carry out post-EIA monitoring to ensure the project proponent comply with all the EIA Approval conditions.
Any cases of river pollution from the project concerned will be dealt with accordingly, including issuing of directives and compound to the project developers.
Q: Is there any effort by the state government to gazette more green lungs in urban areas?
A: Green lungs or open spaces play a pivotal role in improving urban environment and provide benefits to urban population in form of recreation, ecology and aesthetic values.
Open spaces provide urban people with various forms of recreation activities and back to nature experiences through maintenance of natural and man-made ecosystems.
Due to this reason, the state government has enacted the Public Parks and Green Ordinance, 1993 which provides for the preservation and protection of greens in special areas and open spaces.
The enactment of the ordinance enables the state government to safeguard and maintain sufficient area of green lungs in urban setting.
Under the Local Ordinance, 10 per cent of development areas are to be set aside as open spaces which can be developed and rehabilitated as green lungs.
Since then, many areas have been declared as special areas under this Ordinance.
The State Planning Authority and the local authorities are responsible to administer and manage the public parks and greens in special areas.
Q: What are the efforts to revitalise the Sarawak River which is the main attraction in Kuching city?
A: It has been the policy of the state to maintain the water quality of major rivers in Sarawak at Class IIB of the National Water Quality Standard of Malaysia (NWQSM) while the standard for effluent and sewage discharges from industries has been set to Standard A of the EQA, 1974.
From the annual monitoring programmes implemented by the NREB, most of the major rivers in Sarawak, including Sarawak River, are within Class III category.
However, tributaries of Sarawak River and the water quality of rivers within the urban areas have high concentration of coliform and heavy metals.
This is because of direct discharge of waste water from commercial and residential areas into the drains and eventually to streams and rivers.
The NREB has also taken the initiative to monitor major rivers under its river water quality monitoring programme since 1999.
In the interim period, the state through the local authorities has carried out periodic desludging of black water from septic tanks.
However, in the long term, the state has started with the development of Phase I of Centralised Waste Treatment System for Kuching City Centre and is awaiting federal funding to continue with the next phases of development in order to reduce the discharge of untreated waste water directly into the Sarawak River.
Additionally, continuous efforts by various government agencies in the state to help revitalise the Sarawak River include environmental education and awareness campaigns for the public and school children to create awareness of the importance and needs for environmental protection; regular cleaning of floating wastes by Dewan Bandaraya Kuching Utara (DBKU); regulating of sewage effluent discharge by DBKU and DOE; construction of Kuching Central Sewage by Sarawak Sewerage Department; on-going Environmental Awareness programme by DID, SRB, DBKU and NREB; inter-Agency Collaboration projects to clean up anak-anak Sungai such as Sungai Bedil and Sungai Bintangor, involving DBKU, NREB, DOE, SRB, SHD, the local community and schools, and lastly, organising events on the river such as the Sarawak Regatta and the DBKU Regatta to promote importance of the Sarawak River.
Q: What are the challenges faced by your ministry in dealing with environmental issues vis-à-vis the industrialisation of the state?
A: In our pursuit to transform Sarawak into a developed state with a high income economy, social and environmental costs, if not tackled properly, may outweigh the economic gains from this endeavour.
As an example, due to relaxed environmental regulations on industrial development, a city like Shenzhen in China is suffering from severe air and water pollution which affects the health of the urban population.
In addition to the existing environmental concerns of air and water pollution, disposal and management of wastes, socio-cultural concerns, safety and health risks, the state is challenged to address emerging environmental issues from the development of heavy industries at Samalaju and development of renewable energy from various hydroelectric dams projects under SCORE.
These include disposal and management of scheduled wastes, social issues due to influx of foreign workers, competing water demands from various industries, hazardous and toxic emissions, haze pollution and not forgetting management and conservation of biodiversity sensitive areas.
To ensure continuous improvement to environmental regulation, participation and co-operation of all stakeholders are necessary to reduce carbon foot print.