GEORGE TOWN: Penang is in danger from disasters, such as major flooding, due to newly reclaimed areas off its shores, says a development planning expert.
The disasters would occur within 20 to 40 years of the completion of the new areas, he predicted.
Professor Emeritus Dr Hans-Dieter Evers of the Institute of Malaysian and International Studies in Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia also warned that high-rise buildings would be in danger due to ground instability on the newly created islands.
“Penang and Singapore have expanded their size by reclaiming land from the sea. Straits Quay in Penang, among others, is built on reclaimed land, which rises only a few inches above the average sea level.
“The state is embarking on a mega coastal reclamation project in the southern part of the island, which will see the creation of three man-made islands measuring 1,821ha.
“With rising sea levels, these newly reclaimed areas will be flooded. Water will rush into basement parking lots and roads will become impassable. The sand on the newly created islands may become unstable, causing danger to high-rise buildings,” he told the New Straits Times.
Evers said over the past decade, experts had raised estimates on sea level rise due to climate change. Average temperatures had also risen.
As a consequence, he said, seawater in the oceans would expand as the polar ice caps melt, thereby increasing water in the ocean.
He added that the predictions of seawater rise had increased from a few milimetres per year to an expected 4m by the end of this century.
“While the estimates might vary, all research institutes had revised them upwards over the past decade.
“The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) had estimated a sea level rise of between 18cm and 59cm by 2099, but the latest report this year raised the estimate to between 56cm and 200cm, while some research institutes were reporting as high as 4m to 6m by the end of the millennium.
“So, each year, the estimates will go up based on new local and satellite data.”
On when the disasters could strike, he said: “It depends on multiple factors like global warming, frequencies of extreme weather conditions, changes of ocean currents and carbon dioxide emissions.
“As a development planner, I would take the worst-case scenarios into consideration — that flooding of the newly reclaimed Teluk Kumbar areas by one to two metres may occur between 2040 and 2060.
“At the moment, this is nothing but a guess, but we will gain certainty each year.”
Several mega coastal reclamation projects had been planned in the state, including the proposed Penang South Reclamation (PSR) project off the southern coast of the island.
The Penang government recently obtained the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) approval for the project from the Department of Environment (DoE), which came with 72 conditions.
Other mega projects included the Seri Tanjung Pinang project in Tanjung Tokong and the Gurney Drive reclamation.
Statistics showed since 1988, at least 31 land reclamation projects had been approved nationwide, including the construction of 18 artificial islands.
The largest island reclamation so far is Forest City in Johor.
Although land reclamation in Penang had begun in the early 1800s during the British administration, recent large-scale developments had altered the island’s coastline.
According to Evers, reclaiming land only created short-term income to governments in terms of land sale and property taxes, not to mention huge short-term profits for developers.
He noted that long-term negative impact and costs were not factored in. For example, he said securing low-lying land from flooding by the sea was extremely costly, like what the Netherlands had experienced.
He added that dams had to be built and maintained, canals dug to drain water, and roads and passageways must be elevated. The cost to be borne by local governments would be enormous.
He said climate change would increase the frequency and severity of storms during the monsoon season, resulting in highly destructive waves that would lead to storm surges.
“Earthquake-induced tsunamis add another danger to low-lying reclaimed land. Land reclamation has negative ecological consequences as it tends to destroy breeding grounds for fish and shrimp.
“It also cuts off the fishermen’s direct access to the sea, like in Teluk Kumbar, where I used to live in the 1980s while serving as a visiting professor at Universiti Sains Malaysia,” he said.
“Furthermore, offshore sand-mining will also have large-scale impact on the environment and coastal communities in Perak and other places.”
As such, Evers said land reclamation should be stopped altogether, except in rare cases where it could be combined with foreshore harbour development.
FAILING TO LEARN
Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM), which recently published a book entitled Impacts of Coastal Reclamation in Malaysia, said the state government was obviously not learning from its experiences as it continued to push for reclamation projects, including PSR.
SAM president Meenakshi Raman believed the project would be detrimental to the coastal ecosystem of Penang.
“Clearly, the adverse impacts are not confined to just the immediate locality of the reclamation, but will be felt in other parts of the island as well.
“Penang’s beaches and coastal waters are certainly not going to be spared, given the Tanjung Tokong reclamation experience and effects on Gurney Drive.
“Our fear is that we will be seeing the disappearance of our beaches with the erosion of the coastline and creation of mudflats due to heavy siltation.
“These reclamation projects portend devastating impacts that will leave a legacy of regret for our future generation.”
Meenakshi said Johor, Penang, Melaka, Negri Sembilan and Perak had embarked on reclamation projects, which certainly were not without adverse impact.
For example, she said, a study conducted by the National Hydraulic Research Institute of Malaysia in 2010 indicated that reclamation works in Penang had brought about significant siltation that disrupted the natural hydro-flow of its coastal waters.
“Also, another study in 2008 showed that massive deposits of silt were observed in Gurney Drive after the Tanjung Tokong land reclamation project, which started in 2004 and was completed two years later.
“It was soon after the first phase of the reclamation in Tanjung Tokong that the entire Gurney Drive seafront was turned from a sandy beach into a continuous mudflat.”
On the massive effects and consequences of the mega reclamation PSR project, Meenakshi said it had been highlighted in the recent statement by the agriculture and agro-based industry minister in Parliament on July 16, who openly admitted that the massive three-island reclamation project would bring about negative impact.
She said the minister relied on the views of the Fisheries Department, which stated that PSR would destroy fishing grounds, turtle landing zones and part of the coral reefs in Pulau Rimau, which were an important ecosystem for local marine life.
“The proposed reclaimed islands will also disrupt the feeding grounds, nurseries and main migration routes of shrimps, thus affecting their population.
“The anticipation of marine ecology degradation from the PSR project is clearly noted in the Environmental Impact Assessment,” she said, adding that according to the minister, the livelihood of 4,996 fishermen would be adversely affected.
“These are massive and very serious adverse socio-economic and environmental impact that cannot simply be mitigated with payments of compensation to the affected fishermen.
“PSR will also destroy our precious fish resources, which are vital to our food security.”
Meenakshi said the approved EIA stated that the reclaimed islands would be 4.5m above sea level.
“However, the high tide averages 2m in Penang, which means the artificial islands will be at a mere 0.8m above sea level during that tidal condition.
“For the design of the artificial islands to take into account the risk of sea level rise, tidal surges and other effects, the reclaimed land must be more than 4.5m as implied in the EIA,” she said.