Reclamations Gateway to Ecological Disaster
Deforestation is often seen as the biggest threat to Malaysia’s ecosystems but land reclamation is a quiet, destructive force.
Writer: Ashley Yeong
Editor: SL Wong
Published: September 28, 2022
This story is part of Macaranga’s #TanahAir Special Project.
(Cover image: Are the promises of reclamation always realised? An example is the abandoned Melaka Gateway, which has impacted the Portuguese community | Pic by Ashley Yeong)
IT STRETCHES along 33 km of Melaka, almost a quarter of the state’s coastline. It is one of the largest reclamation projects in Malaysian history. State-driven and politically-linked, the Melaka Waterfront Economic Zone (M-WEZ) would reclaim an estimated 10,117ha of the coast, double the size of Putrajaya.
Since the early 1970s, dozens of reclamation projects have guzzled up the ocean along Malaysia’s 4,800km coastline, deepening concerns over their ecological cost. Its ecosystems – a mixture of mangrove swamps, mud flats, sandy beaches, coastal forests and coral reefs – are a wealth of biodiversity and providers of critical ecosystem services.
Melaka’s state government has given assurances that environmental damage will be minimised. But conservationists, development experts, local communities and opposition politicians are alarmed at the damage of such large-scale reclamation on Melaka’s coastal and marine ecosystems.
They say projects of this scale would set off a chain of irreversible ecological damage for questionable economic success, as proven by past projects with similar promise.
Eight years ago in Melaka itself, the Melaka Gateway, a 546ha project on man-made Pulau Melaka, was initially set to be one of China’s Belt and Road strategically-positioned tickets to turning the state into an economic powerhouse.
But last year, the Melaka state government abruptly terminated the contract after the developers failed to complete work by the agreed date. The Melaka Gateway is currently a white elephant, although it is reportedly being resuscitated.
Dr Goh Hong Ching, associate professor at the Department Urban and Regional Planning in University Malaya, says that undeveloped reclaimed land is a telltale sign of poor strategic development planning.
“Our valuation of development is always biased towards monetary gains of the development projects [rather] than a total valuation to include the environmental and social costs in short, medium and long terms that the society must bear,” she says.
Goh knows that all proposals come with “side-effects”. But it is making the right choices based on the people’s best interests that is most important.
“It is also time to insert new perspectives as well as corrective actions into our conventional approach to development planning, which is merely economic-focused and dominated.”
Macaranga contacted M-Wez for comments but did not receive a response.
In Melaka, the aspirations espoused by the even-larger M-WEZ share the same DNA as the abandoned Melaka Gateway.
M-WEZ’s chief executive officer Mohd Yusof Abu Bakar reportedly said that upon completion in 10 to 15 years, the “game changer for development” is expected to create 10,000 new jobs, attract an investment of RM100 billion and contribute to 5% of Melaka’s GDP.
However, for scientists and concerned citizens, functional ecological systems are worth much more.
Dumping sand onto the ocean floor has an immense effect on the environment, says Affendi Yang Amri, coral reef ecologist at University Malaya.
“First, there’s going to be a lot of sediment coming in from the runoff or from the actual operations of the reclamation. Second, there’s going to be hydrodynamic change.” Hydrodynamic changes are changes in the currents and the flow of water.
This is a lethal combination for marine ecosystems, says Affendi. He points out that a place that usually has a slower water flow could see quicker water flow after reclamation. Sediments could then aggregate or flow to where they are not supposed to.
When that happens, the coral reefs in the area would be among the first to be affected, explains Affendi, who has worked on corals for 27 years. “If the corals are smothered by sediment, the polyps can’t extend their tentacles to feed. So, they will starve and die.”
This endangers the reef and all life that depends on it. “One coral actually supports five or six other species in the reef. So if this [one coral] is gone, there would be cascading effects down the line.
“If one area is destroyed it could result in an ecological connectivity disruption. This could have major repercussions to our fisheries industry and our nation’s food supply.”
For unknown to most, the maritime trade superhighway that is the Straits of Malacca is actually home to a plethora of marine life.
Whales, dolphins, turtles and dugongs are known to feed in these waters or use them as part of their migration route.
Melaka Gateway already devastated much of Pulau Upeh, a tiny island that was once the largest nesting beach for endangered hawksbill turtles in Malaysia. The number of turtle landings reportedly reduced to 20 in 2018 from 111 in 2011. This year, the Fisheries Department said there have been no landings.
Coral reefs are plentiful in Melaka’s waters too, where they thrive around its 13 islands. They include 84 species of hard corals, about 19 species of soft corals, 67 species of coral reef fish and 38 small bottom-dwelling aquatic invertebrates.
In fact, Affendi and a cohort of scientists with the Department of Fisheries found gems here in 2018: five coral species classified as vulnerable by IUCN.
Melaka’s Vulnerable corals. Hover over corals to read names. Photos by Alvin Chelliah except Euphyllia ancora, by Quek Yew Aun (illustrative, not necessarily from Melaka)
These finds are so important, in June this year, the Department of Fisheries decided to gazette three islands – Pulau Dodol, Pulau Nangka and Pulau Undan – as protected marine parks. This was done in line with the National Biodiversity Policy to increase biodiversity-rich land and marine protected areas to at least 10% of total land by 2025.
But the islands border the M-WEZ reclamation project, close enough to be negatively impacted by the sand piling and dredging works, says Affendi.
And this is alarming because these coral reefs could be no ordinary reefs. “There’s data that shows all coral growth in and around Peninsula Malaysia has slowed down because of climate change.” Most corals will die.
However, some corals just 50 km north of Melaka in Port Dickson are proving to be more resilient to climate impacts. This could indicate that the waters shared with Melaka could be special for coral survival, what scientists call refugia for corals.
“We feel that if Port Dickson’s corals are the resilient ones, it would be the same in Melaka,” Affendi says.
But are corals enough to halt the reclamation? Endangered turtles did not stop Melaka Gateway from happening.
Yes, says Affendi, especially if mangroves are affected too.
“The damage would be astronomically different as reefs and mangroves hold thousands if not hundreds of thousands of species. Reefs and mangroves have ecological function[s] that affect a much wider range [of life and systems] compared to turtles such as food supply and coastal protection.”
These functions include mitigation of climate change impacts such as storms; recreation; and livelihoods, all of whose value is rarely taken into account.
End of tradition
In terms of local economies, reclamation has killed off traditional fishing livelihoods for the small Kristang community, found only in the state.
Former Kristang fisherman and prominent community leader Martin Theseira says that fishers were among the first to feel the impacts on their environment.
The Portuguese Settlement beach where fishers once took off to sea faces a closed lagoon where the giant crumbling Melaka Gateway towers block off open access to the sea and the view of sea and sky.
The seafront is trapped with garbage instead of marine life. Most of the fishers and their families have left the fishing profession.
“It’s an ecological disaster,” says Theseira, shaking his head in disapproval. “The reclamation has brought irreversible damage to the environment, coastal communities and the marine resources that we rely on for survival.”
Beset by Troubles: Melaka’s Fishing Community
a photo essay
Standing on the pier, Theseira points out the small pockets of mangrove trees and saplings trying to survive. Mangroves play a crucial part in maintaining coastal biodiversity. These are nurseries for juvenile fish that populate the bigger ocean and the geragau shrimp critical to the Melaka specialty of belacan (prawn paste).
Mangrove ecologist Dr Ahmad Aldrie Amir says it firmly: “Reclamation (of) a mangrove forest is a clear-cut death penalty for the ecosystem.”
He explains that a small gap in a mangrove canopy may take 25 to 30 years to recover. Uprooting and demolishing an entire mangrove ecosystem may need hundreds of years to recover.
What’s also lost is the critical role played by mangroves in preventing coastal erosion, a risk heightened by rising sea levels and stronger waves due to the climate crisis. Reclaimed areas are particularly susceptible to erosion.
It was previously reported that erosion has already occurred in 11% of Malaysia’s coasts, according to the National Coastal Vulnerability Index in the Second National Coastal Zone Physical Plan. By 2030, 20,000 ha of coastal areas and their inhabitants are projected to be affected by rising sea levels and 123,000 ha of areas have a tsunami risk.
The 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami caused the death of a quarter million people worldwide, of which 52 deaths were in Penang. Mangroves were credited as barriers against the tsunami waves. Yet reclamations throughout Malaysia are taking the place of these life-saving ecosystems.
Mirroring the Melaka scenario, Johor announced the Maharani Energy Gateway reclamation project despite the previous reclaimed Forest City project having turned into a “ghost town”. Each project is roughly a quarter the size of Putrajaya. For the new project, mangroves, fishers and local recreational beaches will be displaced.
In the north, the Penang state government has resubmitted the EIA for their Penang South Reclamation, half the size of Putrajaya, and is wooing impacted fishers. Their first EIA was set aside by the Department of Environment.
“Reclaiming land is the easy part, but if (the project) fails, you create all this mess and nobody knows what to do with it,” says urban planner Ahmad Jefri Clyde.
The costs are already being paid. They come in the form of critical biodiversity loss, damage to ecosystem services and the end of traditional livelihoods, within the larger framework of food and social security, and climate crisis resilience.
1.11.22 @ 8.52pm: This fact was amended: the aim in the National Biodiversity Policy is to increase biodiversity-rich land and marine protected areas to at least 10% rather than 30% of total land by 2025.
30.9.22 @12.30pm: Sentence added: “Macaranga contacted M-Wez for comments but did not receive a response.”