In spite of a relatively positive environmental record, Malaysia faces problems of deforestation, pollution of inland and marine waters, soil and coastal erosion, overfishing and coral reef destruction, along with air pollution, water pollution and the problem of waste disposal.
Malaysia has enjoyed one of the least polluted urban environments in Asia. However, with the massive industrial development of recent years, and an increase in urbanisation and vehicle use, air and water pollution are of growing concern. Air pollution is due to both stationary industry emissions and vehicle exhaust in industrial and urban areas.
To a certain extent, the burning of solid waste is also a cause of air pollution. Solid waste is one of the three major environmental problems in Malaysia. It plays a significant role in the ability of nature to sustain life within its capacity. Currently, over 23,000 tonnes of waste is produced each day in Malaysia. However, this amount is expected to rise to 30,000 tonnes by the year 2020. The amount of waste generated continues to increase due to the increasing population and development, and only less than 5% of the waste is being recycled. Despite the massive amount and complexity of waste produced, the standards of waste management in Malaysia are still poor. These include outdated and poor documentation of waste generation rates and its composition, inefficient storage and collection systems, disposal of municipal wastes with toxic and hazardous waste, indiscriminate disposal or dumping of wastes and inefficient utilisation of disposal site space.
Water pollution still poses a serious threat in certain parts of Malaysia. Studies show that the major contributors to water pollution are agriculture, agro-based industries such as the processing of palm oil and rubber, food and beverage processing plants, textile and leather tanneries, and electronic hardware factories, many of which discharge effluents directly into rivers. Municipal sewage dumped into rivers is also a major contributor to water pollution. In 1995 only 41.7% of Malaysian rivers were classified as ‘clean’, that is safe for use by humans. There has been a steady improvement since. In 2006, the number of rivers in the ‘cleanest’ category had doubled from 2005. Only seven of Malaysia’s 146 river basins were categorised as ‘polluted’, down from 15 the year before.
Logging, along with cultivation practices has devastated tree cover, causing severe environmental degradation in the country. With current rates of deforestation, the forests are predicted to be extinct by 2020. Over 80% of Sarawak has been cleared; 60% in the Peninsular. These clearing has caused animals traditionally in lowland forest to retreat into the upland rain forests inland. Logging, along with cultivation practices has devastated tree cover, causing severe environmental degradation in the country. Floods in East Malaysia have been worsened by the loss of trees. Deforestation is a major problem for fauna such as tigers, as the forest is cut to make room for plantations, mostly for palm oil and other cash crops. The orangutan population has dropped 40% in the last 20 years. Hunting has also been an issue. Animals such as the Asian elephant have been forced out of their habitat due to its loss, often forcing them to starve. Sumatran rhinoceroses are likely to go extinct in Malaysia. Hornbills are steadily declining in numbers. Most remaining forest is found inside national parks.
Habitat destruction has proved a threat for marine life. Illegal fishing is another major threat, with fishing methods such as dynamite fishing and poisoning depleting marine ecosystems. Leatherback turtle numbers have dropped 98% since the 1950s. Hunting has also been an issue for some animals, with overconsumption and the use of animal parts for profit endangering many animals, from marine life to tigers. Marine life is also detrimentally affected by uncontrolled tourism.
The Malaysian government aims to balance economic growth with environmental protection, but has been accused of favouring big business over the environment. Some state governments are now trying to counter the environmental impact and pollution created by deforestation; and the federal government is trying to cut logging by 10% each year. 28 national parks have been established; 23 in East Malaysia and seven in the Peninsular. Tourism has been limited in biodiverse areas such as Sipadan island. Animal trafficking is a large issue, and the Malaysian government is holding talks with the governments of Brunei and Indonesia to standardise anti-trafficking laws.