FLASH floods in the early hours of the morning recently caused a 12m long by 7.6m wide bridge to collapse and be carried away by a raging river along with several cars. Sungai Ulu Telom in Cameron Highlands broke its banks after heavy rainfall. While no casualties were reported, some 1,000 Orang Asli villagers were cut off from the main road. Obviously, the ecosystem in Cameron Highlands is now prone to disasters after severe downpours. That disasters are a recurrent problem means the root cause — illegal land clearing — has yet to be arrested. The former minister in charge was driven to accuse entrenched interests involving very important people for the non-resolution of what is a dangerous situation; to which remark the current minister in charge demanded for a list of names.
Nerves then are fraying because the danger to the highlands’ ecosystem is too real for comfort. Fatal landslides and mudflows are no longer strangers, and downriver silting is having huge consequences. The drying up of Sungai Pahang is said to be one such. But that is a 400km-long story yet to be handled in a concerted way, which requires the intransigency of the highlands administration to end. A committee chaired by the deputy prime minister, no less, was set up to ensure that the measures meant to resolve the problem are carried out by the district
and land offices. Unfortunately, initial reports immediately following that action suggested a surprising intransigence, verging on insubordination, on the part of relevant officers.
At the federal level, a proposal to amend the National Forestry Act is afoot. It is in final review and will, through harsh fines, hopefully, end illegal land clearing everywhere in the country. The RM10,000 fine now in force on those caught will be increased to RM500,000; a manifold increase that is intended to hit the pockets of the criminals hard. The amendments promise, too, to further empower the law with respect to enforcement and arrest. This is but one aspect of a much larger problem, one that has, according to reports, laid near useless the efforts of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission officers stationed in the highlands for want of cooperation from the district and land offices.
The minister responsible has had a high profile as a result of the many environmental degradation issues facing the country, especially in Pahang. It has to be said that, for the most part, the onus on maintaining a sustainable environment rests with the state government. As a result, Putrajaya has had to move with the acquiescence of the former. Despite the years-old threat to the Cameron Highlands ecosystem, the problem of natural disasters remains. Even before the effects of La Nina are upon us, disasters appear to have started. Will the arrival of La Nina worsen it and bring on the kind of mudflows appeased only by lives lost? Hopefully, whatever rectification has begun will manifest immediate benefits and that the Sungai Ulu Telom disaster is but a minor aberration.