KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia--Many earlier warnings about the environmental damage from replacing natural hill forests with musang king durian plantations around Baling had long been ignored, said B.E.A.CC.H, the environmental cluster of the CSO Platform for Reform in Malaysia.

These durian plantations, around Gunung Inas, are widely reported to be the root cause of the flash floods that devastated parts of nearby Baling, Kedah on July 4.

The existing forest reserve on the steep hills there was first clear-felled (totally logged) before durian trees were planted on bare earth under the pretext of a “forest plantation”.

“Back in 2018, we went in and saw serious erosion after the hill forests had been cleared and terraced for a huge musang king project,” recalled Mohd Sobri Ramlee, training coordinator of the Kedah chapter of Pertubuhan Alam Sekitar Sejahtera (GRASS), which is part of B.E.A.CC.H. (Biodiversity, Environment, Agroecology, Climate Change and Habitat).

“Since then, muddy floods have affected kampung people and damaged their rubber, oil palm and fruit plantations. The villagers’ source of clean water from Gunung Inas has been polluted not only with silt and mud but also with pesticides and fertilisers used for the durians,” explained Mohd Sobri.

GRASS Kedah added that tourism to the Lata Celak waterfall had been jeopardised, along with village homestays, when the formerly pristine waterfalls turned brown. To make matters worse, the clearing of forest has driven wildlife such as elephants to encroach into the kampungs, where they have damaged crops.

In the latest disaster, after heavy rains, a surge of river water (kepala air) carrying tree trunks/branches and other debris swept down on Kampung Iboi. This has been shown in several viral videos.

It was reported that the river surge swept away three family members to their deaths. 85 houses were damaged while 1,424 people from nine villages were relocated to flood evacuation centres.

Economic damage was also felt further away with a “total shut down” of water supply to the Kulim HI-Tech Park and to Sungai Petani due to the overly high sediment load in the river water.

“This tragedy shows what can happen when deforestation of hills is combined with climate change, which has resulted in more extreme weather and heavier rainfall,” noted Leela Panikkar, coordinator of B.E.A.CC.H. and director of Treat of Every Environment Special (TrEES).

Even now, in the face of disaster, Energy and Natural Resources Minister Datuk Seri Takiyuddin Hassan (who is from PAS, the same political party as the Kedah Menteri Besar) said no “active logging activities” had been reported in the Gunung Inas Forest Reserve area that could have led to a water surge phenomenon.

Instead he said “forest development” was being carried out for “reforestation purposes” with more than 5,000 trees planted. This of course ignores that the area had been totally logged before to make way for the durian trees, which are now disguised as “reforestation”.

There are several possible causes of the destructive floods, said GRASS Kedah:

- The durian project was done on hill slopes exceeding the recommended steepness limit of 25 percent

- The sedimentation ponds broke or were not built according to Department of Environment (DOE) standards

- In 2018, it was observed that the required buffer zones (between cleared land and the river) were not done

- The Forestry Department does not recommend planting of durians in forest reserve areas

- Lack of proper or constant monitoring by the authorities

- Lack of proper ground cover, for example by planting creepers, in between the durian trees

“These are all possibilities of why such a terrible flood happened. We need a proper investigation to find out the real cause,” said Mohd Sobri.

“I am very sad because I know many friends at Kampung Iboi,” he sighed.

“We have been warning about the musang king project for a long time. We repeated these warnings during the terrible floods that hit Yan, Kedah last year (August 2021).”

*B.E.A.CC.H. which stands for Biodiversity•Environment•Agroecology•Climate Change•Habitats, is the environment cluster of the CSO Platform for Reform, a coalition of more than 100 civil society organisations focusing on institutional reforms.*