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Malaysia confronts deadly consequences of Kuala Lumpur’s neglected urban forest

Residents treasure the city’s many tree-lined roads, some of which trace their history back to the late 1800s when it was founded.

But appreciation for the green bursts of colour and respite they provide from the tropical heat in a heavily urbanised city has been tempered by a spate of treacherous tree knock-downs during heavy storms.

The worst on May 7 uprooted a large, old rain tree that had been a landmark on the city’s inner ring road, killing a 47-year-old motorist and blocking the busy thoroughfare, as well as an elevated monorail track along the route.

Since then, more storms have toppled trees, causing fear among the public over their safety and leading to calls for more preventive measures from the authorities.

Speaking to This Week in Asia, Saifful Pathil, one of Kuala Lumpur’s 21 certified arborists, said that the small number of experts in the field is an impediment to making sure the trees are safe.

All around the greater Kuala Lumpur area, trees have had their root structures paved over with concrete, harming their health. Cracks have also appeared in pavements near trees, endangering both pedestrians and traffic.

“There is a conflict between trees and development in the city centre,” Saifful said. “But the lack of enough certified arborists is a major hurdle.”

Kuala Lumpur is more than 243 sq km in size and Saifful said it takes him over two years to check every tree in his designated zone.

There were only 109 certified arborists in the whole of Malaysia as of 2018, according to former Deputy Housing and Local Government Minister Raja Kamarul Bahrin Shah, who said then that there were just 25 qualified to do tree risk assessments.

With so few experts, warning signs can be easily overlooked – including in the tree