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Whither Pearl of the Orient?

Photograph: Syerleena Abdul Rashid

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We should not take our seas for granted and should do everything we can to ensure that they are protected from further damage, urges Syerleena Abdul Rashid.

Photograph: Syerleena Abdul Rashid
Photograph: Syerleena Abdul Rashid

Penang is a magnificent place to live in, surrounded by the Andaman Sea (technically, it’s the Straits of Malacca, but who’s checking?) and blessed with green hills. These elements make up a picturesque landscape that leaves one in constant awe of Mother Nature’s finesse.

The present local government has implemented several much lauded eco-friendly policies to promote environmental awareness – but just how effective are these policies? It seems as if very little initiative to curb further pollution of our sea, which has been directly affected by uncontrolled development.

The north part of Penang Island is more developed then the rest of the state and the main tourist belt (Tanjung Bungah-Batu Ferringhi) has a few tourists’ spots for local and domestic beach-goers. But beaches along the coast are considered dirty and unsafe due to the barrage of water sports-related incidents.

The lack of proper methods used to handle waste management is still an issue. It is not uncommon to see heaps of rubbish floating in the sea – but what about what we can’t see with the naked eye?

The coastal and marine areas of Penang are, without a doubt, subjected to pollution caused by rapid urbanisation and uncontrolled industrialisation.

Tanjong Tokong has suffered a lot from development projects over the years and undeniably adds to what Penangites consider the ‘greatest environmental disaster to date’ at Gurney Drive. The mangrove forest that once stood there was completely destroyed to make way for ‘development’.

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Studies have shown that the water in Gurney Drive is extremely polluted (including the presence of fecal pollutants). Siltation caused by the present Straits Quay development is so immense that any cleaning effort will be extremely costly. In what could further damage the already environmentally fragile area, the developer of the Seri Tanjung Pinang project (E&O) is busy with Phase 2, which involves 891 acres of land reclamation. Worryingly, the ecological disaster in the vicinity could worsen if Phase 2 receives the green light.

Further south, the waterways (sea and rivers) along Bayan Lepas have deteriorated drastically due to toxic waste and other untreated effluents channelled into the sea following the rapid industrialisation at the Bayan Lepas Free Trade Zone. For example, the rivers today emit a noticeably strong ammonia-like smell to passersby.

Fisher folk at Teluk Kumbar - Photograph: Syerleena Abdul Rashid
Fisher folk at Teluk Kumbar – Photograph: Syerleena Abdul Rashid

The Department of Environment Malaysia carries out research to inspect the water quality of rivers and seas in Malaysia annually. In 2002, the National Policy on the Environment was implemented. This outlined advances in sustainable development in the economic sector, social development and environmental protection.

Additionally, in 2010, the Department of Environment Malaysia (DOE) introduced the Malaysian Interim Marine Water Quality Standards (IMWQS) to monitor marine environmental quality. To monitor other water bodies (rivers, lakes, etc.), the Interim National Water Quality Standards Malaysia (INWQSM) was set up.

With rules and regulations already set up, it boils down to enforcement and political will. Strict enforcement is an extremely important criterion in ensuring our marine environment is preserved and protected. Government bodies and the local authorities must ensure that the public and private sectors comply with existing laws. They need to formulate effective coastal management programmes that integrate key industry players and tackle present or potential marine pollution from all pollutant sources.

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On top of that, to ensure sea-based activities do not lead to an increase in pollution, sustainable action plans, policies and prevention must be clearly stated to safeguard Penang’s already fragile marine environment.

Simultaneously, the local government should find ways to co-operate with existing environmental organisations to mobilise campaigns to create marine environment awareness. Such campaigns or programmes can help educate the public and foster civic consciousness

Efforts to encourage conservation are more popular on the East Coast (Perhentian Islands, Tioman Island) and Sabah (Sipadan Island, Mabul Island) due to ongoing media publicity and the presence of crystal clear seas. Langkawi also has several dive sites while the Pulau Payar Marine Park serves as a protected haven that encourages such efforts.

Such conservation efforts must exist in Penang too, as it has been identified that three endangered marine species frequent our waters: green turtles, olive ridley turtles and the Indo-Pacific humpback/bottlenose dolphins.

Turtle beach - Photograph: Syerleena Abdul Rashid
Turtle beach – Photograph: Syerleena Abdul Rashid

The public still has a negative perception of our seas and beach conditions. Penang isn’t well known for its marine life, and this is evident when Penangites themselves are shocked to hear about sea turtles that use Pantai Kerachut as a nesting area for their eggs.

The ongoing environmental issues, whether land-based or marine, and the potential issues that may arise from them in Penang require urgent attention. We should not take our seas for granted anymore; we should do everything we can to ensure that they are protected from further damage.

Think about it … we are surrounded by or live not far from the sea; it is a national treasure Penang should be proud of.

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