Rampant land clearing for development and farming near buffer zones is putting a strain on Malaysia's water catchment areas and preventing our dams from filling up despite sporadic rain and cloud seeding efforts.
Forestry and environment experts here have cautioned that unless water catchment areas are gazetted and protected, water basins are in danger of rapidly drying up.
Peninsular Malaysia forestry department director-general Dr Abdul Rahman Abdul Rahim said forests function like "sponges to absorb water" but the ground could not retain water if there are disturbances to the hydrological cycle caused by development and farming activities in surrounding areas.
"The existing minimum 10m buffer zone surrounding water catchments is insufficient.
"Buffer zones should vary according to the size of the forests and water bodies," he said, adding that de-gazetting of non-permanent forest reserves came under the state and local authorities' jurisdiction.
"There are one million hectares of forests under state control which can be developed. As a technical department, we can only advise the state authorities not to (approve development plans) but the final decision is theirs," he explained.
He said the current water woes were worsened by the El Nino phenomenon as (rain) clouds were not forming at water catchments because of the dry spell and wind direction.
Yesterday, the Sungai Selangor dam which supplies water to more than 60 per cent of households in Selangor, Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya dropped to 33.27 per cent of its capacity - a record low.
During the last water rationing exercise in February and March, the dam level was 37 per cent.
Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) president Prof Dr Maketab Mohamed said water catchments were not gazetted and thus, not protected.
Usually, only the forest upstream of the dam was gazetted and not the downstream parts (between the dam and the intake points), he said, citing the Batang Berjuntai development in downstream Sungai Selangor as an example.
"So, in the ungazetted areas we have plantations, orchards, villages, towns and industries. A watershed must be gazetted and have minimum human activities so that water quantity and quality are not compromised."
A Selangor land and mines department spokesman said the state valued its forests and was very concerned about the "health" of water catchment areas.
"Before any forest is de-gazetted for development, a state planning committee with representatives from all the technical departments will discuss every aspect, including the appropriate buffer zone size, in detail," he said.