Coastal development in the Southeast-Asian nation might be doing more harm than good.
words Matthew Vergara
Nestled in the heart of the Asian tropics sits Malaysia, a country that has seen major economic progress and steady population growth in recent decades. It should come as no surprise that development is a staple feature in the region, but with viable land running short, developers have resorted to the seemingly more cost-effective option of forming land out of the sea.
Land reclamation now runs rife in Malaysia. A recent report by the NGO group Friends of the Earth Malaysia lists up to 20 approved or completed large scale land reclamation projects. While decision-makers and project proponents continue to deliberate just how much is too much, the public will have to grapple with the stark reality of changing shorelines, and the environmental costs that follow.
Marine Habitat Destruction
The southernmost state of Johor is the setting for the next ambitious mega-project. Bordering close to neighbouring Singapore’s waters, the ironically named Forest City project will boast four artificial islands when it reaches completion. Ecologists who have voiced their scepticism were right in doing so, as the ecological and environmental impacts have manifested themselves even in these early stages of the development.
The encroachment upon fragile mangrove and seagrass meadow ecosystems has been a principal issue. Already, a significant patch of gazetted mangrove forest has reportedly been wiped out to make way for a golf course, while the proposed artificial islands themselves would directly lie on what are currently swathes of species-rich seagrass beds. The situation at hand spells doom for local marine biodiversity. Land reclamation at this scale would be considered a major ecological disturbance – mirroring that of natural disasters. When the complex food chains and the habitats supporting them are disrupted in such magnitude, fish, crustaceans, sea turtles and other marine life are all but guaranteed to face extirpation.
Loss of biodiversity is not the only worry. The disappearing natural coastal environment will take with it the ecosystem services that local communities rely on. Mangrove forests in Malaysia have shown an unwavering ability to protect local communities from ocean deluge and shoreline erosion, while simultaneously improving water quality. As unsightly as the landscape is with which we replace these stunning ecosystems, costlier unapparent consequences – namely flooding, siltation and shoreline retreat – will also rise in time to come.
Livelihoods at Stake
A plethora of other projects scattered across the Malay Peninsula echo the impacts of Forest City, with none so much as those in the state of Penang. The quaint island state has been hampered by project after controversial project in the past decade. Reclaimed land continues to sprout on the coasts, mainly to feed ever-growing commercial and residential demand.
Most recently, the state government has announced approval for the Penang South Reclamation project, which will consist of three new artificial islands totalling 1,800 hectares spanning the entirety of the island’s south coast. While the plan is impressive, it lacks the proper future-proofing measures needed to minimise long term damages.
Beyond habitat loss for marine life, the livelihoods of fishermen communities are at stake. The fish population that fishermen have been relying on for generations will fade as a result of habitat being buried under sand and cement. This is nothing new. Fishermen on the north-eastern side of the island have experienced massive declines in catch and are forced to confront harsher fishing grounds as a result of a residential reclamation project completed in 2005. Socio-economically, land reclamation here has dealt a massive blow to the fishing industry.
Following the completion of this residential project, the natural contour of the shoreline was altered into a protruding chunk of landmass. This led to changes in wave directions and sediment transport, resulting in the accumulation of mud on a stretch of beach kilometres south of the project. Gurney Wharf, once an iconic landmark for many residents, was transformed from a tourist hotspot into an unsightly bed of mud and grime in the years following the project.
Proponents of these land reclamation projects, however, insist that the need for development is urgent. Offset plans have been put in place to preserve coastal ecosystems. But environmental groups have questioned the effectiveness of these countermeasures, citing the severe impacts that have already played out. It ends up being a game of cost-benefit analysis. Many agree that the environmental costs are too heavy to bear, yet each year, news of newly proposed land reclamation projects continue to surface.