By Veronica Lim
Malaysia is obsessed with land reclamation.
According to the civil society coalition Gerakan Malaysia Tolak Tambak, there are more than 20 large-scale projects for reclamation and artificial islands that are being proposed or have stalled.
Six of the projects are in Penang, including the most controversial “Penang South Islands” project.
Even though the reclamation is “downsized” and claimed to be furnished with some “green planning”, it will not be a wise policy.
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Given the accelerating sea-level rise and global warming, whose effect can be felt strongly nowadays, governments at both federal and state levels should focus on building coastal resilience rather than destroying it with reclamation.
Melting glaciers and warming ocean waters have resulted in significant global mean sea-level rise since the Industrial Revolution.
However, physical oceanographer Chris Piecuch says the sea level is not just rising, it is rising faster over time.
The pressing issue is not only that coastal areas are gradually being swallowed up, but the rate of nuisance flooding is also increasing.
Based on Greenpeace’s analysis of seven Asian cities, a total of 15 million people, 1,829 sq km land area and gross domestic product (GDP) of $724bn could potentially be affected by extreme sea-level rise and coastal flooding in 2030.
The report suggests how the economies of the cities could be affected in the coming years under the business-as-usual carbon emissions scenario.
Considering these worrying situations, land reclamation is not a viable option despite some current practices that view reclamation as a measure to combat rising sea levels.
Low-lying states like the Maldives have undertaken massive reclamation projects to safeguard against rising tides. These projects end up destroying the natural barriers and make the islands more vulnerable to climate change. The Maldivian government is currently allocating about 35% of its national budget for coastal protection and flood prevention.
A case study of Xiamen, China, shows that the expected annual inundation and expected annual population exposed to coastal flooding would multiply rapidly as a result of continuing land reclamation.
The sustainability of reclaimed lands becomes questionable because of rising sea level, population pressure, extreme events and land subsidence.
A study on the Asian coastal cities reveals that most of the recently reclaimed lands are subject to noticeable levels of deformation.
Other research indicates that the areas with severe subsidence in Singapore are reclaimed land.
Land reclamation results in lowered ground elevations with higher risk of seawater intrusion and threatens life and property. It also harms the coastal and marine environment and the livelihoods of fisherfolk.
At first glance it may seem that declining fishing activities caused by land reclamation can be made up through fish farming, but this is not the case. Coastal aquaculture is also subject to the impact of land reclamation and climate change. Pollution, warmer sea water and extreme weather tend to damage farming results.
Generating millions of tonnes of carbon emissions, reclamation projects accompanied by sand extraction exacerbate the problems of global warming and ocean acidification.
The decrease in the pH of the ocean, caused primarily by CO2 emissions from human activities, has negative effects on many marine species and also alters the food supply chain of humans.
As reclamation areas are more vulnerable to flooding and accelerated rising sea level, there should be a paradigm shift in coastal planning policies. The government should halt land reclamation projects and focus on coastal resilience instead of putting the population, food security, infrastructure and economy at great risk.
The Penang government plans to create artificial reefs, fish aggregating devices and ecologically enhanced shorelines around the man-made island to “compensate” for the damage caused by the Penang South Islands project.
This is like implanting some artificial tissues after removing a healthy organ from a human body, hoping that the person will be as robust as before. Such greenwashing must be rejected.
Healthy coastal ecosystems are vital to fisheries, tourism, human health and public safety. The priority should be to conserve existing ecosystems and restore what has been degraded by human activities.
Nature is our best defence against the impact of climate change. The clock is ticking. – The Malaysian Insight
* Veronica Lim Yi Hui is the Agora Society chairmperson. She holds a degree in biochemistry and is now studying for a PhD in philosophy. She is fascinated by creative human endeavours in films and music but worries about people’s destructive impact on the planet