November 1, 2017

Deadly Landslide is a Sign of What’s Wrong on Penang

Deadly Landslide is a Sign of What’s Wrong on Penang

A landslide in Tanjung Bungah in Penang had deadly consequences. Photo Credit: Malay Mail Online via Facebook

On a relatively small and already overdeveloped island like Penang, any further development may have negative environmental repercussions. That is why it is important that no decisions are made on such new developments without proper environmental assessment and public consultation.

The dangers of ill-advised and haphazard developments have come into sharp focus recently when a large part of a steep hillside development in Tanjung Bungah collapsed, burying numerous construction workers under mounds of rubble. Many of the foreign workers, who came from Bangladesh, Indonesia and Myanmar, died in the deadly landslide.

A tit-for-tat of recrimination has ensued. Environmentalists have pointed the finger at local government officials for giving the go-ahead to the project. Local officials have been laying the blame on the developers, who they said failed to follow proper guidelines. Officials of the federal government have blamed local officials; local officials and politicians have blamed the federal government. No one has accepted responsibility for the deadly fiasco.

Much of Penang’s shoreline has already been lost to upscale developments. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

To make maters worse, the residential development project is located next to a quarry, which made the whole construction prone to dangers, including landslides. The Teik Granite Quarry “is a permanent granite quarry that started operations in 1960,” the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment said in a statement, adding that there was continued blasting going on at the nearby quarry. “Once the rocks are blasted loose from the hillside, they are sent to a crushing site within the quarry where the rocks are then crushed to smaller pieces for construction use,” the ministry said.

Irresponsible? You bet.

Yet so it goes: Another development in Penang, another environmental meltdown, this time a deadly one. And no one seems willing to take responsibility. “We cannot just see from one point of view. We need a whole picture to gauge what is best for Penang. And for the majority development is needed as we need to progress,” Chong Eng, a local politician who was once a civil society activist herself, recently noted in the face of opposition to such development projects from civil society groups.

There is no arguing that economic development is important. The question is: at what price and at what cost will such development come to Penang and its residents? As this latest environmental disaster demonstrates, the cost can be very high indeed.

And not only in lives lost but in irreparable harm done to the island’s fragile ecosystems. Unceasing coastal reclamations have been laying waste to marine environments and depriving local fishermen of their traditional livelihoods. There are also aesthetic considerations: unsightly hotels and towing condominiums are befouling Penang’s scenic shorelines and hilly interior. What was once unspoiled natural beauty is now being lost to greed in the name of “development.”

By all means, Penang does need to develop for the sake of its residents who do deserve higher standards and qualities of living. Yet this august aim must be achieved in sustainable ways that do not threaten what makes the island justifiably famous the world over as a haven of natural bounty.

Or what’s left of it.


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