Malaysia looks at tougher rules to save coastal birds

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KUALA LUMPUR, Sep 12 (Reuters) Malaysia has vowed to toughen environmental rules for coastal development projects after a study showed a drop in bird numbers following reclamation that destroyed their homes in mangroves and wetlands.

Farms, homes and industry have sprung up along Malaysia's coasts, depriving migratory birds of key winter homes, leading to a 22 per cent fall in the number of shorebirds recorded in the two decades to 2006, conservation group Wetlands International said yesterday.

Malaysia will tighten environmental regulations to avoid similar future mistakes, Environment Minister Azmi Khalid said.

''Of course, wetlands, people have turned that into prawn farms, fish farms, without regard,'' he said at a function in the Malaysian capital.

''But today we are aware, my god, we have done the wrong thing. So now governments are very aware of this. All approvals are now being looked at very seriously by all state governments.'' The state of Malaysia's vanishing wetlands mirrored the situation with its 189 river basins, just half of which were still intact, while another five percent were too polluted for even a fish to survive, Azmi said.

''In the process of development we have overlooked these issues,'' he added.

The move for closer scrutiny was part of a growing government consensus that environmental policy needed to be overhauled, Azmi said. He also said there were concerns the environment ministry did not have enough say in projects from highways to town planning.

''I'm told that inputs from the environment ministry are minimal, up to only the environmental impact assessments (EIAs), which is not enough. We don't have enough enforcement powers.'' The format of Malaysia's environmental impact assessments dated to the 1970s and the ministry would consider revising it if necessary, Azmi added.

Environmentalists welcomed the move for closer scrutiny, but said that unless Malaysia identified and protected critical biodiversity areas in its development plans, wetlands would still be at risk from property developers who saw them as a bargain.

''Some people doing development like to go and grab the cheap areas which may be state land, or where they drain wetlands, because they feel they can get them for free or cheaply,'' Faizal Parish of the Global Environment Centre, a Malaysian non-profit group, told Reuters.

Wetlands International said Malaysian coasts were key wintering grounds for endangered species such as the Nordmann's Greenshank, which numbers between 500 and 1,000 birds, and the Chinese egret, whose population ranges from 2,600 to 3,400.

The group's two-year survey, ending in 2006, studied 134 sites in Malaysia, recording more than 105,000 birds.

The worst-hit region was the coast of the northern state of Perak, which saw an 86 per cent decline from a similar survey in the 1980s. There were also dramatic falls on the west coast of Johor and in Selangor, the area around the Malaysian capital.

REUTERS PDT KP0904

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