Coastal reclamation: Future-proof development strategy?

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Before undertaking the Penang South Reclamation project, the Penang government should revisit the impacts of ongoing and past reclamation projects, writes Khoo Salma Nasution.

The present craze in resort-island reclamation, from the Maldives to Johor’s Forest City to Bali’s Telok Benoa was most likely inspired by Dubai’s Palm Islands, which started in 2001.

Fake islands face severe environmental stresses from the beginning.

It is no secret that the UAE’s oil revenue has financed the creation of the artificial Palm Islands in Dubai and the constant environmental-mitigating interventions they require. Due to its strategic location in the middle of an oil-rich region, “Palm Jumeirah”, one of the three islands, enjoyed short-lived real estate success. But with the oil price collapse, property prices have fallen by 40% from their 2014 peak (Financial Times, 29 January 2020).

Palm Islands could be a timely warning for governments endorsing large-scale environmental destruction for unsustainable economic gains.

Precautionary principle

All major international environmental charters and treaties espouse the “precautionary principle” (German, vorsorgeprinzip) of “first, do no harm”. The precautionary principle is meant to guide rational decision-making to ensure that the interactive elements of uncertainty and irreversibility are fully considered. This is necessary to protect present and future generations from undue risks and harmful impacts arising from irresponsible institutional decision-making. The principle should be applied to all major projects with potential serious and widespread environmental impacts, including coastal reclamation projects.

In Malaysia, the National Physical Plan (2010) contains clear policy statements forbidding coastal land reclamation for purposes other than the development of ports of strategic national importance. It also stipulates that coastal reclamation “shall not be permitted in or adjacent to sensitive ecosystems such as marine parks, mangroves, mudflats, coral reefs, seagrass beds, turtle landing sites and major tourism beaches”.

Despite these sound policy recommendations, more than 20 state-endorsed reclamation projects in the country are either ongoing or in the pipeline. If we superimpose a map of these reclamation projects over a map of future sea-level rise, the reclamation areas appear at risk of frequent flooding or even submergence within a few short decades. Not only will the reclamation areas be vulnerable to sea level rise caused by global warming, the development of these projects are themselves contributing significantly to speeding up climate change.

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How much carbon emissions is too much?

The single most ambitious reclamation project in Malaysia so far is the 4,500-acre Penang South Reclamation (PSR), calculated to generate 3.2 million tonnes of carbon emissions per year, according to the “18 nasihat” (18-point advice) issued by the National Physical Planning Council. The carbon emissions generated annually by the PSR will require 147 million trees to offset (based on one mature tree sequestering 48 pounds of carbon dioxide per year). These figures are simply alarming for anyone concerned with the future of our planet, yet they seem to mean nothing to politicians.

The Penang government insists on going ahead with the PSR project even though it will severely disrupt the livelihoods of thousands of fisherfolk. The project will take advantage of the shallow sea of Teluk Kumbar, Kawasan Selatan (southern Penang Island), displacing the “fishing commons” where fisherfolk have sought their livelihoods for generations. Pengkalan Permatang Damar Laut, Pengkalan Sungai Batu, Pengkalan Teluk Kumbar and Pengkalan Gertak Sanggul in southern Penang Island are the jetties which land the bulk of Penang’s wild-caught prawns and much of its wild-caught fish.

While it is generally true that global fisheries are declining, the Teluk Kumbar bay, sheltered by coral-rich Kendi Island and Rimau Island, is still abundant in marine life. Fishing boats from other parts of Penang – and from Kuala Perlis to Pangkor in certain seasons – frequent this area. In the first year of the PSR project, the developers will scrape away the fertile mudflats all along the coastline, deliberately destroying the natural ecosystem of Penang’s richest fishery.

Threat to food security?

Sand-mining for the PSR project will threaten another 6,000 fishermen operating along the northern Perak coast. The resulting pollution threatens to jeopardise the “golden triangle” of brackish water aquaculture producing half of Peninsula Malaysia’s supply – Sungai Udang in Penang, Tanjung Piandang and Kuala Kurau as well as the mangrove areas of Kuala Gula and Kuala Sepetang, all in Perak. The effects on national food security and rising seafood prices will be hardest felt by Malaysia’s low-income population.

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Before undertaking the PSR project, the Penang government should revisit the impacts of ongoing and past reclamation projects. Professing to uphold the UN sustainable development goals, including goal 14 (Life Under Water), the Penang government would presumably be keen to learn about the true impacts of the massive phase two of the Seri Tanjung Pinang project (STP2). Despite precautions taken during the reclamation, marine water quality in the north of Penang Island has deteriorated. The fishermen in Tanjung Tokong and Bagan Ajam report that their fish catch has dropped as much as 50%-70% compared to their catch before STP2.

Coastal pollution has resulted in our seas being filled with swirling suspended sediments, jellyfish and sea urchins.

The sea around Tanjung Tokong and Gurney Drive should be cleaned up so that fish populations recover in order to restore the livelihoods of fishermen who received a pittance (one-off payments in 2015 of RM15,000 for boat owners and RM2,000 for crew) for their ongoing losses. But if rehabilitation efforts of the waters are still wanting or cannot be undertaken successfully, then the only responsible thing for the Penang government to do would be to cancel all future reclamation projects.

Recommendations by DoE, agriculture minister

In a letter of 25 June 2019, the director-general of the Department of Environment (DoE) advised the Penang government that the PSR will “cause permanent and residual impacts on mudflat ecosystems, fishing grounds, turtle landing areas, and some coral reefs in Pulau Rimau… This permanent destruction will have a significant negative impact on fisheries resources, fisheries and the security of national food supply”. The advice was ironically incorporated in the letter of approval for the PSR environmental impact assessment report, signed, incidentally, by the director-general on his last day of work, before retirement.

On 16 July 2019, the agriculture minister said in Parliament that the PSR project will affect 4,909 fishermen on the island and 511 marine aquaculture operators. The minister recommended that the Penang state government implement mitigation measures “without fail”, such as gazetting the strip from Betong Island to Telok Bahang as a conservation zone and the middle bank as a protected fisheries area.

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Have these steps been taken?

The minister also required studies to be conducted on the impacts of noise population on fish from the PSR dredging and reclamation and on prawn migration over a one-year cycle, and then to modify the island design to allow for unimpeded prawn migration. All these conditions are recorded in the Hansard, but one wonders if these studies are underway? And if the island designs need to be modified, will revised hydraulic studies be submitted to the DoE?

The agriculture minister, who has repeatedly emphasised the need for Malaysia to reduce food imports, has acknowledged that “in principle, it is the responsibility of the agriculture and agro-based ministries to protect the marine resources and welfare of the fishermen”. He should therefore instruct his ministry and the fisheries development authority (Lembaga Kemajuan Ikan Malaysia) to whole-heartedly follow this policy rather than over-enthusiastically facilitate the Penang government’s agenda to obliterate marine resources and undermine the fishermen’s welfare.

Where will the water supply come from, where will the sewage go to?

Judging from the real estate sales of Johor’s Forest City, most properties on Penang South Reclamation will be targeted at foreign nationals, especially China nationals. The PSR environmental impact assessment report presented the project timeline starting with the reclamation of “Island B”, but several weeks later an advertisement in Bloomberg (6 December 2019) showed that “Island A” would proceed first. This indicates that PSR might still lack the detailed financial or physical planning conditions to make it “future-proof”.

The additional 400,000 population projected for the three new islands will further stretch Penang’s resources. The 800,000 population on the already water-stressed Penang island will have to compete for precious water with the new, mainly foreign, residents, and this might mean critical water rationing. How will the additional water supply be secured? Will additional sewerage and landfill facilities be required and where will they be located?

Sign now, future generations might regret later

The Penang government announced recently it was in a hurry to sign the project delivery partner (PDP) agreement with SRS Consortium for the implementation of the Penang transport proposal and the PSR project.

Therefore, it is our duty to remind them to heed the environmental warnings of the DoE and the agriculture minister and to slam the future-proof “precautionary principle” brakes.

Apparently, the Penang government’s existing letter of offer to the developers stipulates that SRS Consortium is required to obtain all the necessary approvals for various projects. As mentioned, the DoE approved the environmental impact assessment for the PSR on 25 June 2019.

But the good fisherfolk of Penang have filed an appeal against the director-general’s decision, under Section 35(1) of the Environmental Quality Act 1974. Before the appeal is heard and the decision obtained, the Penang government should respect the legal process and should not take steps to start the reclamation project.

Khoo Salma Nasution, an Aliran member and long-time heritage activist, is a Penang Forum steering committee member

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