WWF-Malaysia calls for better protection of the country’s natural capital in Budget 2017 — Dionysius Sharma

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NOVEMBER 3 — The government’s Budget 2017 presented by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, themed ‘Accelerating Growth, Ensuring Fiscal Prudence, Enhancing Well-being of the Rakyat’ highlighted the importance of protecting nature. These included protecting water catchment areas, forest reserves and national parks. It also was mentioned that the budget was not just about income, but it was related to the quality of life, which includes the enjoyment of a clean environment. We commend this move, however, we would also like to express our concern on the lack of specific allocations presented to protect our natural capital, as per the 11th Malaysia Plan and National Policy on Biological Diversity 2016 — 2025.

Fiscal measures need to be put in place to assist the State governments in setting aside forests for ecosystem services and biodiversity conservation. Emphasis should be made on pursuing green growth and the country’s resources need to be deployed in a more sustainable manner. It has become more critical in light of the haze, flooding, landslides and water shortage crisis faced.

New development indicators beyond Gross Domestic Product (GDP) such as Green Economy indicators, resource indicators and inventory, and sustainable consumption and production (SCP) indicators should be developed. . The economic importance of ecosystem services are reflected in The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) Scoping study, which was undertaken in 2015 to provide a more comprehensive understanding of the true value of our ecosystems and biodiversity.

Economic resilience can only be increased if natural capital is accounted for in the measurement of economic growth and the wellbeing of the rakyat. Overexploitation of natural capital such as deforestation, overfishing and land degradation will negatively impact both wellbeing and GDP.

Water is a precious form of natural capital. In WWF-Malaysia’s Budget 2017 proposal to the Government, we recommended to expedite the implementation of the Strategic Action Plans of the National Water Policy 2012. The proposal called for a harmonisation of efforts between Federal and State bodies through the National Water Resources Council, Integrated Water Resources Management (IRBM) /Integrated River Basin Management (IWRM), and development of national water resources related standards to support the management and protection of water resources.

In our opinion, the RM500 million Tabung Bekalan Air (Water Supply Fund) set up should also be used to protect water catchment forests. The Ulu Muda forest complex located in Kedah is one example of an important water catchment forest. This catchment forest provides 32 per cent of the water supply for the irrigation needs within the Muda Agricultural, as well as supply 80 per cent of Penang’s water and 96 per cent of Kedah’s water supply. The protection of Ulu Muda forests in totality is necessary not only to sustain the water security and economy of both Penang and Kedah but also the nation’s rice production.

Funding should be allocated to introduce measures to enhance demand for side management of water resources, including by revising the current water tariff to better reflect the value of this vital natural resource, and to prevent its wasteful consumption. Furthermore, if new water sources are to be tapped like groundwater, sufficient studies should first be conducted to identify features to allow recharge and these should be adequately secured and protected before the commencement of any activities. Appropriate legislation should also be developed to ensure that this water source is sustainably used.

We need a healthy, functional and biodiversity-rich environment across both land and sea. The RM400 million allocation for clean air and ecotourism initiatives should also cover other vital ecosystem services for tourism Ecotourism measures should be implemented n a manner that causes minimal disruption to ecosystems. The focus should be on low impact eco-tourism or eco-tourism with an emphasis on nature, taking into account the ecological carrying capacity of an area as opposed to building infrastructures in eco-tourism areas. Preservation of ecosystems is crucial as it draws these groups of tourists to the country in the first place.

Natural capital also contributes to food production. The Budget 2017’s RM1.3 billion allocation to subsidise paddy price, seeds and fertilisers including hill paddy was consistent with the RM70 million subsidy allocated in 2016 for hill paddy fertiliser to increase food supply and income of hill paddy farmers in Sabah and Sarawak.

However, the fertiliser that is supplied under the subsidies may be chemical fertilisers which contribute to environmental degradation, and in the case of Sarawak, expansion of hill paddy via shifting cultivation may further promote deforestation. Thus, we would like call for the subsidies to promote sustainable farming practices to address such issues in food production.

Budget 2017 stated improvement to the public transport system. Improved public transport will lead to fewer vehicles on the roads and therefore, less greenhouse gas emissions. However, there is no mention of whether the public transport vehicles deployed to improve the public transport system will be energy efficient vehicles. This is important as energy efficient vehicles will help reduce both greenhouse gas emissions and the nation’s reliance on fossil fuel generated energy. The scope of the government’s investments in renewable energy should benefit both urban and rural areas to increase the quality of life for the nation as a whole.  

An important component of natural capital that has been left out of the economic components was our rich oceans. There was no clear commitment from federal government on how marine protected areas’ biodiversity conservation will be managed.

Natural capital protection takes long term commitment and efforts, and it is best if the progress could be timely revealed to the Rakyat, especially for the enforcement to protect terrestrial and marine biodiversity. The funds to safeguard natural resources (including biodiversity and ecosystem services) must no longer be considered as an expenditure but an investment to secure and sustain the country’s economic growth.

* Datuk Dr Dionysius Sharma is Executive Director/CEO of WWF-Malaysia.

** This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.

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