Cry me a river…

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Ahmad Chik looks at what happens when ‘they’ try to improve on Nature and ‘develop’ a beautiful stream.

The Sg Air Terjun begins in the upper slopes of Penang Hill and, as it makes its way down the steep sides, the trickle becomes a torrent that rushes through a rock strewn bed. About half way down, it leaps over a magnificent fall – the Great Fall – that has been recorded in many paintings and photographs, though none has been able to capture adequately the dramatic landscape.

The popular alternative name for the Botanic Garden derived from this – as everyone knows. There is a spot in the Garden where it is possible to see the water-fall in the distance.

It was from here in the early 19th century that Governor Leith constructed an aqueduct to bring good potable water to the inhabitants of George Town and to visiting ships.  Penang’s reputation for having the best water East of the Suez probably started then. (Much later this was reduced to the more modest claim of having the best water in the Federation).

In the closing years of the same century, the foundations of our modern water supply system were laid when a reservoir and a water treatment plant were constructed just below the waterfall. Both are still in use and worth a visit, with permission from the PBA.

Past the reservoir, the stream widens into a natural pool that became a favourite weekend swimming hole for hordes of school children. The freezing cold water was an added appeal.

But the last time I looked, the pool was almost dry and no longer suitable for swimming, the result of too much water being drawn for domestic use.  

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After the pool, the river flows past the manicured lawns of the Botanic Garden, the nursery, and the famous Coronation Camp until it enters a sort of no-man’s land, where it assumes all the characteristics of a natural river.

It is this part of the stream that is the subject of this short essay.

Here the banks of the stream were always over-grown with weeds and bushes with large trees dominating. It was long the home of a host of insects, birds, fishes and frogs. On several occasions, I saw civet cats and pangolins while others have reported seeing otters. It was a perfect ecological system, idyllic and lovely.

With the city so close, it became a convenient site for the nature education program that MNS and the Friends of the Penang Botanic Garden conducted for schools. Many children with nets and whoops of joy waded in the pristine water to catch all manner of aquatic creatures.

Sometime in 2008, THEY decided that if nature was improved upon and the stream is made more ecological this would be a perfect site for an Eco Walk. So at a cost of a million ringgit, I was told, THEY hired clever consultants who drew up beautiful plans. Experienced contractors were appointed and the bull-dozers sent in. First all the trees were chopped, the bushes were removed and the banks levelled and planted with grass as if for a golf course. Then the stream was dredged, widened and canalised.

Finally to make it all even more ecological THEY erected bridges over the stream and placed benches on the banks, all in concrete, but made to look like natural timber.

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The river was now fully ‘developed’…

Ahmad Chik is an Aliran member based in Penang.  

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