George Town, Malaysia – The construction of three artificial islands from the ground up on Penang Island in northwestern Malaysia is no small task. But the government of Penang, one of Malaysia’s smallest states, seems determined to meet the challenge.

Approved in 2015, controversial Penang South Reclamation (PSR) aims to fund the larger and highly anticipated 46 billion Malaysian Ringgit (US$11 billion) Penang Transport Master Plan (PTMP), which includes the development of a seamless new highway system to connect the mainland And the island’s tunnels and the light rail system that eases traffic congestion on the island.

The project will create 4,500 acres (1,821 hectares) of land on three artificial islands. These artificial islands will have most car-free housing and an industrial zone constructed of bamboo, wood and recycled concrete. Each island can accommodate up to 15,000 people . Now touted as the main economic driver of Penang’s post-coronavirus recovery, its creator stated that PSR will create 300,000 jobs in the next 30 years, reduce brain drain and ensure a better future for Penang.

However, environmentalists say that the three islands, called Biodiversity City, will bury the state’s richest fisheries and most biodiversity-rich areas in 76,000 Olympic-sized sand pools. They are only 250 meters (820 feet) from the southern coast of the island. The state government claims that there is no more land to develop on the island, although Penang state on mainland Malaysia is mostly flat, called Seberang Perai, which is slightly larger than Singapore, about two and a half hours. -Half the size of the mountain island is at its disposal.

Since the project was approved in 2015, those concerned about the catastrophic environmental consequences of reclamation projects under the leadership of Penang Tolak Tambak (meaning “Penang refuses to reclamation”) and staunch supporters of the state government There has been a tug of war between them. Think that the project is the only way to ensure that they want Penang’s economy to grow.

If the PSR project is launched, Permatang Damar Laut Beach in the southeast of Penang will be one of the most pristine beaches on the island and will be the first area affected [File: Marco Ferrarese/Al Jazeera]

Affected fishery community representatives led by the chairman of the Sungai Batu Fishermen’s Union, Zakaria Ismail, plan to appeal to the federal government this week to revoke the environmental impact assessment (EIA) of the project. At the time of writing, due to the coronavirus pandemic, construction has not yet begun.

“I hope this issue gets full attention,” Zakaria told Al Jazeera. “The environmental management plan report is beneficial to our fishermen, and the federal government should cancel the PSR project.”

Assess the impact

Some experts say that what looks good on the surface may not be the smartest choice for Penang in the future.

Penang Environmental and Urban Policy Researcher Evelyn Teh said that the dredging and sand mining work required for more than 20 years of reclamation projects will “transform into submarine habitat destruction, fish migration hindered, food web structure impact and oxygen consumption”. Al Jazeera. The damage will also affect the neighboring northern coast of Perak and the fishing communities in the area. The cost of the project is also worrying: According to the Penang Forum, a coalition of non-governmental organizations opposed to PSR, its initial two island plan in 2015 was estimated at 8 billion Malaysian ringgits (US$1.9 billion). By 2022, only half of an island’s area will rise to 7 billion Malaysian ringgits (1.7 billion US dollars).

A joint venture between the state government and SRS Consortium (a group of Malaysian companies led by construction giant Gamuda, with a 60% controlling stake), it hopes to sell the land on the first artificial island to the highest private bidder. Reclamation costs are funded. SRS will retain 70% of the shares, while the state government will only have 30%.

Reclamation should help fund transportation plans for crowded islands [File: Kate Mayberry/Al Jazeera]

The current Penang Forum economist and former Penang Island City Councillor Lim Mahui calculated that under this circumstance, the state government can only earn about 600 million Malaysian ringgits (145 million US dollars) in the next 10 years- One-tenth of the expected investment in its transportation ambitions.

On June 24, Lin told local broadcaster Astro Awani that the Penang Forum is not opposed to the state’s development as long as it is sustainable. But he said that PSR seems to have become a large-scale construction project. Lim also stated that PSR’s 1,000-page environmental impact assessment failed to consider alternatives to reclamation, such as building equivalent development in mainland Penang. He said the construction will permanently change the coastal mudflats in the area.

Six years ago, the Penang Forum proposed an alternative to PTMP. The “Better, Cheaper, Faster” proposal proposes a less disruptive approach built around Autonomous Railway Rapid Transport (ART), which is a cost less than 10 billion Malaysian ringgits (US$2.36 billion) Trolleybus system. “Sarawak and Johor continue to move forward, but we don’t,” Lin said, referring to the other two states in Malaysia.

Hotkey problem

In early May, Nurul Izzah Anwar, daughter of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and Member of Parliament for the Penang constituency of Penang, was the governing League of Hope in Penang ( PH) The first person in the alliance to express opposition to the project.

Her main concern is that PSR will take up a lot of resources and divert attention from the country’s coronavirus struggle and the much-needed development on the mainland.

“Malaysia’s continued political dynamics have aroused opposition from the state government [like Penang] Rely heavily on monetized natural resources, that is, existing or reclaimed land,” Nurul Izzah told Al Jazeera. “In Penang and other states, we see an unsustainable trade-off between limited state finances and the environment. “

The ministers of the federal government formed by the rival National League (PN) coalition also called the project unnecessary and unsustainable. But as an opposition country with limited financial support from federal authorities, land sales are one of the few ways the state can raise funds.

The chairman of the Penang Infrastructure and Transport Commission, Zairil Khir Johari, said that this is nothing more than political bullying. “They seem to have no doubts about the reclamation projects led by the Barisan Nasional in Kedah, Johor, Terengganu, Kelantan and Malacca,” Zairil wrote on his blog.

The most controversial projects in Malaysia are those supported by China: the forest city of Johor has been criticized for its impact on fisheries, seagrass beds, mangroves, and relations with neighboring Singapore; and the Malacca Gateway, which is a port and cruise terminal , Is part of China’s “One Belt One Road” initiative, but was suspended on November 16 last year without any explanation.

Reclamation of land in the forest city of Johor, which overlooks Singapore, also caused controversy [File: Edgar Su/Reuters]
The fishing community in Malacca has long accused the large-scale reclamation project of destroying their catch and clogging the channel with sand. [File: Kate Mayberry/Al Jazeera]

The project has left reclaimed beaches along the city’s coast, which, like Penang, is also a World Heritage Site. Citizens also oppose the Malacca Coastal Economic Zone, a 22-kilometer (14-mile) long reclamation project that puts Malacca’s last beach and main fishing grounds at risk.

Zairil’s Penang Island constituency, Tanjung Bunga, often faces floods and landslides caused by hillside development. He insisted that the state government needs to find suitable reclamation sites on the island to ensure its future economic development. Zairil said that Penang wants a job, not another forest city.

He added that the PSR area is “not the Great Barrier Reef” but “shallow and muddy water” (this argument was immediately refuted by experts), which can be easily sacrificed for economic development.

Zairil’s latest statement seems to contradict the earlier position of the state government.

In November 2018, just a few months before the opening of Malaysia’s second IKEA store in the new development zone in Batu Kawan, the Star newspaper quoted Penang Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow as saying that the area has great potential to attract investor.

“It is not true that there is no more developable land in the mainland,” Allen Te told Al Jazeera. Teh is the founder of Atelier Alan Teh Architect and often oversees projects in mainland Penang.

“The state government has been expanding its industrial land bank [on the mainland] Due to strong demand, in Batu Kawan. Logic tells me that acquiring or converting private agricultural land into development land is cheaper, faster, and more sustainable, and the state government has the power and right to convert or increase the land use rate (by plot ratio or density) of the area specifically for special national initiatives. Project,” he said.

Learn from past mistakes

Even without looking at what happened in Malacca, Penang should be very aware of the risks of reclamation and large-scale projects.

The Seri Tanjung Pinang (STP) 1 land reclamation project, which started in 2006, created 240 acres (97 hectares) of land off the north coast of the island for the construction of some of the most luxurious properties in Penang. A second 760 acres (307.5 hectares) site is currently under construction, of which 131 acres (53 hectares) is reserved by the Penang State Government.

But in 2018, local fishermen lamented that the once abundant fish and crustaceans had disappeared. Since September 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic changed the pace of life and business, the promised development has stagnated and has not been completed.

Zakaria said that even if Penang completed the construction of the second bridge connecting the mainland in 2014, the sludge from underwater drilling affected the turbidity of the water and reduced the number of fish in the next five years.

He added that PSR’s work may mean the end of Penang’s fresh seafood supply.

“The state government must ensure that the people of Penang have enough food, because unbalanced development will lead to excess funds but insufficient food,” he said.

The Penang state government has pledged to provide fishermen with a one-time compensation of 20,000 Malaysian ringgits (approximately US$5,000), and either guarantee employment during the ten-year reclamation project or upgrade new vessels and engines.

It also stated that a new wharf will be built to help fishermen go to sea even when the tide is low. But few people think this is enough to deal with the uncertain future they face now.

“Who benefits from these large-scale projects?” Teh asked, noting that the past reclamation projects on Penang Island provided very limited recreational space for the public. “Only the country and the super rich have lost their livelihoods due to reclamation projects at the expense of the environment and low- and middle-income groups.”


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