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Earth Day 2023: The 11 Biggest Environmental Threats Facing Malaysia Today

Earth Day 2023 coming up soon this month. Every April 22nd we commemorate the anniversary of the birth of the modern environmental movement in 1970.

In the decades leading up to the first Earth Day, air pollution was running rampant and was even seen as a sign of prosperity and technological advancement.

That changed when the first Earth Day was held on April 22nd 1970; that momentous event inspired 20 million Americans — at the time, 10% of the total population of the United States — to take to the streets, parks and auditoriums to demonstrate against the impacts of 150 years of industrial development which had left a growing legacy of serious human health impacts.

Since 1990, Earth Day had gone global, paving the way for the 1992 United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.

As Earth Day 2023 approaches, it’s important for us to take stock of the environmental challenges that Malaysia faces today. These challenges not only impact the natural beauty of our country but also have long-term effects on the health and well-being of our citizens. Here are 11 most significant environmental threats that Malaysia is currently facing:

Source: The Star

#1: Climate Change Increasing Flood Risks

The climate crisis is unfortunately real and affects our country on many levels.

Changes in weather patterns will lead to longer periods of heavy rainfall which in turn will result in more frequent and devastating floods.

Climate change brings about extreme changes in weather patterns, in temperature and rainfall… The flood has been termed a once in a hundred years event. But perhaps, more such incidents will be recurring over the coming years. – Associate Professor Haliza Abdul Rahman, Universiti Putra Malaysia[1]

Floods typically coincide with the monsoon season between November and March. However, the warming climate has led to increasingly erratic and unpredictable weather patterns. Monsoon seasons are now longer with heavier rainfall and more frequent flooding. 

Normally, the Malaysian East Coast bore the brunt of these floods, however, it has also wreaked havoc in the Klang Valley and elsewhere. One example in recent memory is the December 2021 floods, where more than 21,000 people – most of whom were in Selangor – were displaced from their homes[2].

I am relieved that we are all safe, but I can’t think of what lies ahead for us when we get home. Everything is lost. – Mr Azwadi Awang, Shah Alam resident and flood survivor[3]

#2: Rising Temperatures Causing Droughts

On the flip side, rising global temperatures will also result in extended heat waves and droughts. This will affect the supply of water and increase water pollution. Based on the Water Resources Study for 2015 to 2050, the northern states of Perlis, Kedah and Penang are projected to experience a water shortage of 221 million to 246 million cubic metres (mcm). Selangor and Melaka could see water shortages of 1,000 mcm and nearly 200 mcm to 33 mcm respectively[4].

For those who often work outside, be careful if the weather is too hot. The risks from a high temperature or heatwave include dehydration, heat cramps, heat exhaustion and heat stroke which can worsen a person’s health condition. – Muhammad Helmi Abdullah, Director-general of the Malaysian Meteorological Department (MetMalaysia)[5]

Source: Mongabay

#3: Deforestation

Malaysia prides itself on its rainforests, and yet it also has one of the biggest deforestation rates in the world.  illegal logging (the harvesting, transporting, purchasing or sale of timber in violation of a country’s laws and regulations) continues to run rampant in the country.

In 2010, Malaysia had 20.3Mha (million hectares) of natural forest, covering 87% of its land area. By 2021, Malaysia had lost 123Kha (thousands of hectares) of natural forest, equivalent to 87.2Mt (metric tonnes) of CO2 emissions, according to the latest data from Global Forest Watch

From 2001 to 2021, 93% of tree cover loss occurred in areas where the dominant drivers of loss resulted from deforestation, with Sarawak experiencing the most tree cover loss at 3.11Mha compared to an average of 542Kha, followed by Sabah.

Malaysia’s Borneo, in fact, suffers from some of the most significant forest loss in the country, with 80% of the region’s rainforest having been logged[6]. As of now, Malaysia recorded 90 cases of illegal logging last year, including 60 cases in Sarawak alone[7].

#4: Poaching

The source, of course, is due to the country’s rich biodiversity. Everything from pangolins and bears to our tigers, sambar deer and birds are being hunted.Kanitha Krishnasamy, director for TRAFFIC, South East Asia[8]

Malaysia, with its rich biodiversity, has become a major hotspot for poaching and wildlife trafficking.

According to a 2019 report by TRAFFIC, the Wildlife Trade Monitoring Network, some 900,000 pangolins were trafficked globally from 2000-2019 with significant proportions linked to Southeast Asia. In Malaysia, specifically, close to 30,000 kgs of pangolins were seized in Sabah in February 2019 from two locations — a warehouse and a factory[8]

And between the 7th and 13th of July 2020, four operations conducted by the Department of Wildlife and National Parks Peninsular Malaysia (Perhilitan) arrested seven people and seized at least 215 wildlife parts, 12 kg of wild meat and five whole animals, with some of these parts belonging to protected animals including tigers, sun bears and pangolins[9]

In August 2021, authorities at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) seized eight live hornbills (including a baby helmeted hornbill, a critically endangered species hunted to the brink of extinction for its distinctive ivory-like bill casque) en route to international markets[10].

These cases show that Malaysia’s wildlife is still targeted by both local and foreign poachers, who are very often after highly endangered species. It makes enforcement actions like this all the more crucial. – Elizabeth John, TRAFFIC Senior Communications Officer[9]

Poaching is also one of the biggest threats to our national animal, the Malayan tiger (Panthera tigris jacksoni). Many East Asian cultures ascribe medicinal qualities to tiger body parts, including bones, blood and sexual organs[11].

Their parts are believed to be used for traditional medicine, local remedies and increasingly as status symbols among some Asian cultures, like in China. – Lara Ariffin, Tiger Protection Society of Malaysia (Rimau) president[12]

Besides the poaching of tigers, overhunting their favourite prey, Sambar deer is also driving tiger populations to the brink[12].

Sambar deer are a favourite source of food for the tiger, which can feed on it for up to 10 days. With the sambar deer itself now facing extinction, its absence from several key protected forests are leaving tigers hungry. – Lara Ariffin, Tiger Protection Society of Malaysia (Rimau) president[12]

Source: The Vibes

#5: Rising Sea Level 

As the ice caps melt, sea levels will rise. And unfortunately, Malaysia’s coastlines are vulnerable to sea level rise. The Centre for Governance and Political Studies (Cent-GPS) has run a digital simulation showing that 9 major states will have land below sea level by 2050[13].

Kedah, the “Rice Bowl of Malaysia” has been under threat from sea level rise and climate change for years now.

Rice farmers like Yusof Awang Kechik say that the weather has become more unpredictable, affecting their rice crops[14].

Weather conditions are now somehow peculiar and hard to predict. – Yusof Awang Kechik, retired rice farmer[14]

Among the states most vulnerable to sea level rise is Kedah. As a result of their low-lying coastal plains, the granary areas under Muda Agricultural Development Authority (MADA) (including Yusof’s rice fields) are particularly vulnerable to sea level rise flooding[15].

During the June 2016 flood, high tide prevented inland floods from flowing out to the sea, resulting in a 2-day inundation of the granary area[15]. Over 75% of the paddy fields in the Kuala Kedah area were submerged by seawater due to this flood[16].

#6: Changing Weather Patterns Problematic For Fishers

As a nation that depends on fisheries for food security and income, changing weather patterns can be devastating, especially for small-scale fisheries.

There was a time when fishermen in Mukim Tanjung Kupang caught kilos of crabs and prawns in a single morning. This made hundreds and sometimes even thousands of ringgit a week[17].

Nowadays though, they barely catch anything.

Like it or not, we have to drift with the waves and wind to look for 1,000 ringgit [in seafood], but if we’re half-dead, what is the point? It’s dangerous so we might as well head back home. – Indasari Othman, fisherman[17]

Climate change is currently affecting artisanal fisheries. In the past, fishermen relied on wind patterns to determine where and when it was safe to fish. Recently, winds have been more erratic and heavy storms have increased. As small fishing boats used by artisanal fishermen cannot withstand such weather conditions, many fishermen return home early without catching anything[17].

Bajau Laut or Sea Gypsies are also affected by weather changes, threatening their livelihoods.

No fish today. The winds were blowing strong and I came back. Not worth risking being capsized in the dark. – Mr Lan, Bajau Laut villager[18]

Bajau Laut fishermen need calm waters to work. But increasingly erratic weather patterns have led to stronger winds and more severe storms. And unlike large industrial fishing ships, the traditional fishing boats of the Bajau Laut are unsuited to facing such strong weather without capsizing risk[18].

Indigenous and fishing communities depend on safe seas to earn a living and these increasingly strong winds, changes in weather will affect their catch when they are at sea. So it then affects their food security and livelihoods. – Dr Serina Rahman, ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute[18]

Source: The Rakyat Post/Credit: Sayuti Zainudin/Malay Mail

#7: Plastic Pollution

Plastic waste is one of the biggest forms of pollution in the world; since 1950, plastic production has dramatically increased from only 2 million tonnes per year to 381 million tonnes in 2015, roughly equivalent to two-thirds of the world’s population[19].

Packaging (including single-use food and beverage containers) makes up 42% of that amount[19]. Malaysia alone has over 1,300 plastic manufacturers, making it one of the biggest players in the global plastic market[20].

As of 2020, Malaysia ranks as one of the biggest plastic producers in the world; a 2019 study commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) reports that Malaysia has an annual per capita plastic use of 16.78 kg per person, much higher than China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam[21].

Most significantly to us, Malaysia had produced more than 0.94 million tonnes of mismanaged plastic waste per year by 2018, of which 0.14 to 0.37 million tonnes may have been washed into the oceans[22].

Source: The Vibes

#8: Annual Increment Of E-Waste

With every updated mobile phone or computer on the market, there is a tendency to replace what we deem “obsolete”. It is inevitable that many take technology for granted and dispose of unwanted electronics. This is without consideration of the detrimental environmental and health impacts such disposal will incur.

Electronic waste (abbreviated as ‘e-waste’) refers to any electrical or electronic devices that have been discarded at the end of their useful lifespan.

Jabatan Alam Sekitar describes e-waste as:

a broken, non-working or old/obsolete electric electronic appliance such as TV, PC, air conditioner, washing machine and refrigerator.

It’s estimated that Malaysia generates more than 365,000 tonnes of e-waste annually, which is more than the Petronas Twin Towers![23]

According to the Malaysian Department of Environment (DOE), it is estimated that e-waste such as television sets, personal computers and rechargeable batteries almost doubled from 463,866 metric tonnes in 2011 to 832,692 metric tonnes in 2020. Air-conditioners and washing machines, meanwhile, rose from 172,281 metric tonnes in 2010 to 211,348 metric tonnes in 2020[24].

The Global E-waste Monitor 2020 report further estimates that Malaysians generated 364 kilotons (kt) of e-waste in 2019 or an average of 11.1kg per capita. While recycling activities have grown to 1.8Mt since 2014, e-Waste has increased by 9.2Mt[25]. The report expresses concern that recycling activities are not keeping up with the amount of e-waste people generate each day.

Unfortunately, research predicts that Malaysia will generate 24.5 million units of e-waste in 2025. It is vital to keep electronic equipment to a minimum. Stick with what we have instead of getting that flashy new device. – Adawiyah Roslan, International Islamic University[26]

#9: Fabric Waste

The textile industry is the second most polluting industry in the world. And Malaysia is no exception to contributing to this issue.

In 2018, Malaysia dumped 195,300 tonnes of fabric into landfills. SWCorp Malaysia further revealed that textile waste ending up in landfills doubled from 2.8% in 2012 to 6.3%[27].

A 2017 report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation states that clothing represents more than 60% of the total fabric used globally[28], with an estimated 18.6 million tonnes of clothing that will end up in landfills. If this trend continues, more than 150 million tonnes of fashion waste will clog our landfills by 2050[29].

A simple weighing on the timescale of decomposition and manufacturing will tell us that fabric waste is increasing. – Dr Tan Ching Hong, physical chemist[28]

60% of textiles (including clothing) are made of synthetic materials such as nylon, lycra, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), polyurethane (PU) and spandex. The materials, however, will take decades to decompose (releasing harmful greenhouse gases such as methane in the process) and may continue to persist in ecosystems long after that. 

It is ironic considering the quick turnover; the fashion industry presents updated clothing lines every month[28].

This makes fabric waste as harmful as plastic waste because fabric waste can take up to hundreds of years to decompose. – Nik Suzila Hassan, Kloth Cares co-founder[28]

#10: Air Pollution

Today, more than 70% of the Malaysian population lives in cities or urban areas[30]. And although we do not realise it, our daily lives contribute to air pollution problems in Kuala Lumpur.

Have you noticed that the days are getting hazier by the hour? Or that it is getting harder to breathe, especially in the city centre?

Latest estimates show that Kuala Lumpur’s fine particulate matter (PM2.5) air quality averaged 15.24 micrograms in 2021, exceeding the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) recommended annual limits of 5 micrograms by over 3 times[31]. Such a level of fine particulate matter would be considered a health hazard.

Even more worrying for us is that the latest data demonstrates a lack of improvement in Kuala Lumpur’s air quality for four years. Although 2020 saw a 12% improvement from 2019, 2021 levels tell a different story as the city’s annual air pollution consistently hovers around the WHO recommended limit[31].

Malaysia ranks 50th among the most polluted countries in the world. And at an average US Air Quality Index (AQI) of 119, Kuala Lumpur is one of the most polluted cities in the world, comparable to Jakarta (118) and more polluted than Beijing (72). In other words, we breathe in far more pollutants than we realise!

Air pollution in Malaysia originates from many sources, including industrial manufacturing, power generation, vehicles, and open-burning activities[32].

In Malaysia specifically, deaths attributed to air pollution increased by nearly 30% in the last ten years. In 2019, as many as 10,600 people in the country are estimated to have died due to air pollution[33]. Furthermore, WHO reports a strong link between air pollution and cardiovascular diseases (CVD) noting that 60–80% of air pollution-related deaths are due to CVD. This link is especially troubling, given that CVD is one of the leading causes of death in Malaysia, with a 35% mortality rate.

#11: Noise Pollution

Urban noise pollution is making us deaf and killing us slowly. – Aznim Ruhana Md Yusup[34]

Noise pollution is ubiquitous in Kuala Lumpur. Continuous traffic, industries, factories, workshops, household activities, construction work, aeroplanes flying above, rock and pop music and loudspeakers all contribute to our increasingly noisy city.

Some of the causes of noise pollution in the city include vehicular traffic, particularly, motorcycles and, to some extent heavy vehicles, construction noise well outside working hours and late into the night and on weekends, particularly in residential areas and the use of leaf-blowing machines. – Boon Keat Khoo, Country Manager, Malaysia, EnviroSolutions & Consulting Sdn Bhd

According to Universiti Teknologi Malaysia’s (UTM) Institute of Noise and Vibration director Prof Dr Mohd Salman Leong, road traffic noise has risen compared to about 10 years ago, based on measurements taken by the institute at several locations in Malaysia. 

For example, the average noise levels during the daytime along the Cheras-Kajang Expressway in the Klang Valley spiked by 19% or 12.4 dBA (dBA stands for “A-weighted decibels” and is a measure of sound). 

From 64 dBA in 2010, the levels increased to 76.4 dBA in 2017 – one can imagine the difference in volume to sound, the noise ranging from a business office sound level to a vacuum cleaner in action. At night, the expressway became noisier too – from 57.8dBA in 2010 to 73.2dBA in 2017[35].

The noise increase is most probably due to increased traffic volume and vehicles travelling at higher speeds. – Prof Dr Mohd Salman Leong, Universiti Teknologi Malaysia’s (UTM) Institute of Noise and Vibration director[35]

More than just an inconvenience, noise pollution is one of the gravest yet least understood health problems affecting us right now. Even moderate levels of noise – the kind that surround us in any urban environment – increase the risks of cardiovascular disease, cognitive impairment, developmental delays and dementia[36].

If you’re constantly exposed to noise, what you would experience first of all is discomfort. It progresses up to rising stress hormones and then your blood pressure goes up. As a result, with elevated cholesterol levels, there’s a risk of heart disease. 

And because you’re exposed to this constant noise even at night, you don’t get to sleep very well, you don’t get rested, and the body doesn’t recover. The cycle repeats itself until it breaks to mortality. – Dr Shailendra Sivalingam, an Ear, Nose and Throat specialist from Sunway Medical Centre[34]

Noise pollution causes hearing loss, which can be temporary or permanent. Temporary hearing loss occurs when you’re exposed to loud sounds (usually above 80 decibels) for a limited amount of time, like during a concert or at a racing circuit, after which you can’t hear very well[34].

Explore our sources:

  1. A. Yusof. (2021). Malaysia’s ‘once in 100 years’ flood exposes reality of climate change, better disaster planning needed: Experts. Channels News Asia. Link. 
  2. Reuters. (2021). More than 21,000 evacuated as heavy rains continue to lash flood-hit Malaysia. Alarabiya news. Link.
  3. R.S. Bed. (2021). ‘Relieved that we are all safe’: Shah Alam residents tell of harrowing rescue after flood devastates Selangor. CNA. Link.
  4. M.B. Salleh. (2022). Water: Keeping Malaysia hydrated. The Edge Markets. Link.
  5. S. Halid. (2022). Hot weather to stay until May. New Straits Times. Link.
  6. R.A. Butler. (2013). 80% of rainforests in Malaysian Borneo logged. Mongabay. Link.
  7. S. Halid. (2023). 90 cases of illegal logging, two-thirds of which are in Sarawak. New Straits Times. Link.
  8. E. Koshy. (2020). Malaysia and Southeast Asia at the heart of massive wildlife trade. New Straits Times. Link.
  9. TRAFFIC. (2020). Raids net wanted poacher and hundreds of wildlife parts in Malaysia. Link.
  10. C. Cowan. (2021). Malaysian hornbill bust reveals live trafficking trend in Southeast Asia. Mongabay. Link.
  11. MyCAT. Link.
  12. A. David. (2022). ‘Even tigers’ whiskers not spared by poachers’. New Straits Times. Link.
  13. A. Dorall. (2019). 9 M’sian Cities Will Be Underwater By 2050 Due To Rising Sea Levels. The Rakyat Post. Link.
  14. S.L. Leoi, I. Hilmy & H. Sivanandam. (n.d.). The Sea Also Rises. The Star Shorthand. Link.
  16. S. Samsuddin Sah et al. (2021). Submerging paddy cultivation area due to coastal flooding in Kuala Kedah, Malaysia. IOP Conference Series Earth and Environmental Science 880. Link.
  17. U. Daniele. (2022). Malaysia’s artisanal fishermen suffer net losses as climate change hits livelihoods. South China Morning Post. Link. (Alternate link)
  18. A. Yusof. (2021). Sabah sea gypsies grapple with dwindling fish catch, sinking villages as climate change threatens way of life. Channel News Asia. Link.
  19. Plastic Pollution. (2018, updated in 2022). Our World in Data. Link.
  20. Malaysia’s Roadmap Towards Zero Use of Single Use Plastics 2018-2030 (2019) Link.
  21. WWF Releases Report Proposing Effective Solution to Mitigate Plastic Pollution in Malaysia. (2020). WWF. Link.
  22. H.L. Chen, T.K. Nath, S.C., Vernon Foo, C.G. & A.M. Lechner. (2021). The plastic waste problem in Malaysia: management, recycling and disposal of local and global plastic waste. SN Applied Sciences. Link.
  23. A. Hakim. (2022). Malaysia’s Annual E-Waste Production Weighs More Than KLCC?! The Rakyat Post. Link.
  24. Bernama. (2021). Recycle e-waste, save the planet. The Malaysian Reserve. Link.
  25. D. Sobri. (2021). e-Waste management in Malaysia: Where and how to dispose of electronic and electrical appliances. iProperty. Link.
  26. A. Roslan. (2022). Be mindful of where your e-waste ends up. The Sun Daily. Link.
  27. Reducing textile waste is everyone’s responsibility. (2021). New Straits Times. Link.
  28. M.M. Chu. (2019). Huge amount of fabric waste dumped. The Star. Link.
  29. A. Azuar. (2022). The Big Waste – one artist’s mission to reduce fashion waste. The Malaysian Reserve. Links.
  30. G.P. Chuan & N. Lee. (2021). Malaysian cities – a powerful vehicle in reducing emissions. UNDP. Link.
  31. P. Robertson. (2022). Kuala Lumpur Air Quality: 2022 Latest Pollution Readings. Smart Air. Link.
  32. The State of Air Quality in Malaysia. (2022). Greenpeace. Link.
  33. The Health and Economic Impacts of Ambient Air Quality in Malaysia. (2022). Greenpeace Malaysia. Link.
  34. A.R. Md Yusup. (2017). In search of silence. New Straits Times. Link.
  35. The Star. (2021). It’s noisier than it used to be before. Link.
  36. K. Bakker. (2023). Noise pollution is a menace to humanity – and a deadly threat to animals. The Guardian. Link.

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