GEORGE TOWN: Penang, the Pearl of the Orient, is sitting on a ticking time bomb.
Coastal reclamation will worsen the island state’s seascape, a marine environment expert has warned.
Dr Zulfigar Yasin, a Universiti Sains Malaysia marine biology professor, said the state’s environment was heading for uncharted waters. He said coastal reclamation would come back to bite the island famed for its tourist spots. Coastal reclamations are going full swing at Gurney Drive and the Queensbay area opposite Pulau Jerejak.
A massive reclamation, which will see the creation of three man-made islands, has been proposed in the southern part of the island to fund the RM46 billion Penang Transport Master Plan.
Zulfigar said not only would Penang be more prone to disasters, such as flooding and tsunamis, they could also be worse. “It is serious enough for the state authorities to know that they are jumping into the unknown. Worse still, Penang’s environment is like a volcano waiting to erupt. We are treading on a ticking time bomb,” he told the New Straits Times.
He said land reclamation in the past was centred on Teluk Bahang to stabilise the coastline, but reclamation these days was to cater for huge development. “In the last 10 years, things have changed drastically. We see very rapid and huge reclamations for development, especially in the Free Trade Zone, Tanjung Tokong and the proposed southern area.
“Penang’s shape used to be rather jagged, but now, it is more rounded. This means that most of our coastlines, especially in shallow areas, have been reclaimed. “If such reclamation continues unabated, there will be serious consequences, which will affect people’s livelihood.”
He said although Penang was in a relatively safe sea, the state authorities should not be complacent as it too was affected by the December 2004 tsunami. He said it was clear that rampant coastal reclamation affected the state’s seawater quality, especially with respect to sedimentation. He said it would also affect fishery, where fishermen would lose their fishing grounds. “The impact may not be immediate, but the obvious index is the price of fish.
Before, the common folk ate fish, and if you were rich, you ate chicken. These days, it’s the opposite. Everything from the sea is becoming expensive.” Zulfigar said Penang’s coastal waters were important to the aquaculture industry. He said the biggest cockle culture sites were in the shallow waters in Penang, Perak and Selangor and, incidentally, these areas were targeted for reclamation. He said if the state relied on water tourism, it made sense to protect such areas. “Penang focuses not only on water tourism, but also medical tourism. Hence, it is ironic that the state is promoting health and aesthetic but, at the same time, destroying the environment.” He said reclamation and overdevelopment would have an impact on the sea habitat, particularly seagrass beds. “Penang has lost many coral reefs over the last 10 to 20 years. We had beautiful reefs in Pulau Kendi, parts of Teluk Bahang, Pulau Rimau and Pulau Jerejak. Now, we have to go elsewhere to see them.”
He said the decreasing quality of seawater, caused by increased sedimentation and heavy metals due to reclamation, meant that it was not conducive to marine animals.
He said the authorities must come up with a study on the state’s coastline, and look at the impact of reclamation on the environment and related industries to mitigate this problem. He said the state’s structural plan should be revisited.
“We need a master plan and new guidelines to ensure sustainable development. We don’t want a repeat of Batu Ferringhi. The tourist hotspot was pristine until development set in. We need to learn from mistakes.” He said many of the existing plans were short term, unsustainable and did not consider long-term impacts.
He said reclamation should be put on hold pending the completion of the study and master plan.