Happiness or plague? Malaysian island reclamation plan divides residents

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Penang Island, on the northwest coast of Malaysia, is known for its sandy beaches, the colorful murals of its capital city Georgetown, and its fiery street food.

In time, it will also become known for three man-made islands that state authorities deem necessary to provide housing and economic opportunities for a growing population, while also generating funds for a modern transportation network.

But the Penang South reclamation project, dubbed BiodiverCity, has pitted government and businesses against fishermen and environmentalists who say it will destroy residents’ lives and damage the coast.

“The region is rich in shrimp and fish. If you build islands, we will see permanent degradation of the environment, ”said Mahadi Md Rodzi, president of the Penang Fishermen’s Association, which represents around 6,000 fishermen.

“Fishermen have been told to upgrade their skills or find another job, but many of us were born fishermen and depend on the sea for a living. The compensation offered by the state is too insufficient for something that will forever affect our livelihoods, ”he said.

Many fishermen rejected the compensation of 20,000 ringitt ($ 4,950) offered, as well as the environmental impact assessment report, which environmentalists say does not reflect the potential damage or propose measures to protect it. ‘adequate mitigation.

The authorities say that BiodiverCity, which is part of the Penang 2030 vision of improving livability and sustainability, will be “socially and economically inclusive development” with an emphasis on green spaces, clean energy and car-free transport.

The 4,500-acre (1,821 hectare) project comprising three lilypad-shaped islands will be home to around 15,000 people each and will use natural and recycled materials such as bamboo and wood for the construction of homes and offices, according to the plan.

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But the scale of the dredging and reclamation work over more than a decade will result in “massive and long-term destruction of the environment,” said Evelyn Teh, an environmental researcher in Penang.

“Fifteen years of land reclamation is a long assault on any marine ecology and the fishing industry that depends on it. The recovered islands will bury existing fishing grounds while deteriorating the quality of the surrounding marine water, ”she said.

“Coastal communities that depend on the marine and coastal area for their livelihoods will experience irreversible negative impact,” she said.

‘Colossal diversion’

From Denmark to Singapore, town planners have reclaimed land from the sea for decades for offices, apartments and tourism.

Cities and island states that lack space are reclaiming land, growing vertically, or going underground.

A United Nations-backed partnership is exploring the prospect of floating cities that can help coastal cities at risk of flooding due to the worsening impacts of climate change.

In Asia, land reclamation has become a controversial issue, with Cambodia and Malaysia banning sand exports, while Jakarta has suspended its reclamation project and a project to build an artificial island in Hong Kong. drew strong criticism.

Malaysia has two other major reclamation projects underway: Melaka Gateway, a deepwater port and cruise terminal that is part of China’s vast Belt and Road Infrastructure Plan, and Forest City in Johor, near Singapore, aimed at foreign investors.

Large-scale reclamation allows for greater flexibility in urban planning, but also allows governments to engage “in a more ambitious and aggressive manner in land banking activities,” said Keng-Khoon Ng, professor. at UCSI University of Kuala Lumpur.

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“These island creation projects are designed to boost the state coffers. They represent a colossal diversion of resources at a time of escalating housing price shortages and social injustice, ”he said.

But the PSR is needed because Penang “is running out of land,” resulting in ad hoc developments, fewer economic opportunities and a shortage of affordable housing, said Eddie Chan, executive director of SRS Consortium, the developer of the project. .

A quarter of the residential units will be for affordable housing in the average price range of 350,000 ringgit, and a fishermen’s task force set up by the state government is addressing any social impact, he said. -he declares.

“With proper design and construction methods applied to dredging and reclamation, along with pollution prevention and mitigation measures to minimize environmental impact, we are confident that reclamation can be achieved. done in a sustainable manner, ”Chan said.

Radically rethink

The PSR project, designed by Copenhagen-based Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), is expected to start in March after approvals.

The reclamation has benefited Penang immensely, with parts of the Bayan Lepas industrial zone, as well as heritage clan piers built on reclaimed land, said Joshua Woo, a former local councilor.

“There are great land reclamation projects for the rich, but there are also land reclamation projects for the survival of a city. PSR belongs to the latter group, ”he said.

“The project will open up new economic opportunities and new social spaces for us,” he added.

In fact, the PSR is a “feasible solution” to solving pressing environmental problems such as climate change and sea level rise, said Farizan Darus, managing director of the government agency Penang Infrastructure Corporation which oversees the project. project.

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“More than half of Penang Island is hilly terrain, so the best approach is land reclamation,” he said.

“Without strategic land, Penang’s growth will be slowed down. Now is the time to implement the PSR to provide much needed economic boost to Penang and prepare the state for the post-pandemic economy, ”he added.

Meanwhile, an online petition from a local heritage advocate against the project garnered more than 115,000 signatures, while a group of locals staged several protests under the Penang Tolak Tambak banner (Penang Rejects Reclamation).

By building the PSR and using it to finance the 46 billion ringgit ($ 11.4 billion) transportation network, the state is taking enormous financial risk during an economic downturn and putting commercial interests ahead of the environment and people, Teh said.

Especially now, as the coronavirus pandemic has revealed deep-rooted inequalities in urbanization, authorities should instead prioritize a ‘radical overhaul of rebuilding for the better’, she said, including public transport networks. low carbon emission.

“The government risks focusing too much on an extremely costly and environmentally destructive project that will only benefit a small group of people at the expense of the general population during an unprecedented economic crisis,” Teh said.

“Penang may be biting more than she can chew.”

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