Environmental problems in Malaysia

Rain forest timber awaiting conveyance down the Kinabatangan river. East Sabah. Borneo. Malaysia. rel=
Rain forest timber awaiting conveyance down the Kinabatangan river. East Sabah. Borneo. Malaysia.
© WWF / Gerald S. CUBITT

A tropical natural bounty, but can this treasure be kept?

Malaysia, one of the 'Asian tiger' economies, has enjoyed remarkable growth over the last few decades, with industrialization, agriculture and tourism playing leading roles in this success story.
But today, despite 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.


Oil palm plantations are a prevalent feature of the Malaysian landscape, as this industry has become a major contributor to the country’s export earnings.

The increase in palm oil production has been driven by strong global demand for oils and fats, notably from Europe and China.

However, this expansion of land for oil palm cultivation has taken place at the expense of lowland tropical forests, which are ecologically sensitive habitats.

The fate of a magic floodplain in Sabah
This includes the Lower Kinabatangan Floodplains in Sabah. In this area, stretching along the northeastern coast of Borneo, forests  have been reduced to scattered pieces, while endangered animals such as elephants have lost their natural homes. Flooding has also intensified.
Because the remaining forest is fragmented, elephants are forced to move through plantations and smallholdings to get from one patch to another.

They prefer to use forest on dry ground, so during floods they are also forced into agricultural land, sometimes causing considerable damage.

Habitat fragmentation has also affected the orangutan populations and other species of high conservation priority (rhinoceros, monkeys, storm storks, oriental darters and others).


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 urbanization and vehicle use, air and water pollution are of growing concern.

At least 85% of the Kinabatangan Lower Floodplain has been converted from forest to agriculture.


  • Asian Development Bank. 1997. Country Operational Strategy Study: Malaysia. STS:MAL 97009. 44 pp.
  • WWF-Malaysia. 2001. Kinabatangan, A Corridor of Life: A Vision for the Kinabatangan 2020. Partners for Wetlands, Lower Kinabatangan Floodplain, Malaysia. 24 pp.

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