Malaysia: Community and non-governmental organisation partnership in highland catchment management (#174)

The district of Cameron Highlands is subjected to a range of environmental problems, ranging from landslides, mudslides, erosion, siltation to water woes. Action was taken by the WWF advocating sustainable highland development to safeguard Cameron Highlands’ delicate ecosystem. Furthermore, through community initiative, the Regional Environmental Awareness of Cameron Highlands was created. This case highlights the value of cooperation between NGOs and community initiatives.

The highland forests on the Main Range are important natural water towers that serve as water catchment areas for a large part of the Peninsular Malaysia. The district of Cameron Highlands, in the State of Pahang and located on the Main Range, has been developed as a tourist destination and for temperate agriculture farming since the 1930s.

In the pursuit to further capitalize on Cameron Highlands’ natural resources for development, a range of environmental problems have surfaced ranging from landslides, mudslides, erosion, siltation to water woes. The local residents have been adversely affected by these problems. In addition, the ecological functions of Cameron Highlands as a water catchment area and habitat for biodiversity have also been jeopardized.

Action taken

In 1999, WWF-Malaysia, established a partnership with the local community in advocating sustainable highland development to safeguard Cameron Highlands’ delicate ecosystem. A community-based organisation called Regional Environmental Awareness of Cameron Highlands (REACH) was founded in 2001.

WWF-Malaysia provided technical assistance in capacity building and facilitated in harnessing the efforts of different stakeholders while REACH coordinated community participation in the planning, implementation and evaluation of activities.

REACH and WWF-Malaysia jointly have managed to create nation-wide awareness on the environmental issues relating to water catchment management in Cameron Highlands specifically and on sustainable highlands management generally. The joint efforts by both parties have also contributed towards influencing the Government’s decision to place sustainable development of the highlands high on its agenda. 

Lessons learned

  • The empowerment of local community like REACH in knowledge base and skills is an important pre-requisite that leads to self-mobilized community actions. 
  • NGO interventions are beneficial in terms of providing support for building local community capacity, facilitating stakeholders’ dialogues and creating synergy of existing efforts by different stakeholders.
  • NGOs can play a catalytic role in motivating communities to become united under their own society and facilitate them in monitoring, addressing and communicating key local water related issues to relevant target audiences. 
  • Engaging partnerships among main stakeholders is vital to overcome capacity constraints in tackling problems and addressing issues that cannot be resolved in isolation by individual stakeholders. 
  • Collaborating with the media, the use of appropriate communications tools and balanced publicity can help in facilitating awareness efforts and in advocating for positive policy changes. 
  • Unbalanced publicity that is slanted too much in favour of local community groups can create strong feelings of not being given sufficient opportunity to explain on the part of the government, which can cause tension between the community and the government.

Importance of the case for IWRM

This case highlights a win-win partnership between a local community group and a scientific, environmental based NGO in raising awareness on development and environment issues in the highlands. The overall environmental outcome from this partnership is that it has led to actions that promote policy and administrative changes at the Federal and State Governments levels for better management of the highlands as water catchments.

The ultimate goal however, would be to ensure that the policy and administrativechanges promoted through this partnership are translated into effective andcontinuous implementation on the ground.

Photo credit: Khairil Yusof