Penang’s natural treasure at stake, drop highway projects, says US activist

National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) environmental and climate justice committee chair Katherine Egland (right) with Penang Forum’s Khoo Salma Nasution at the talk today.

GEORGE TOWN: An American activist today sounded off the Penang government for planning “monstrous” highway projects that will kill its beautiful environment and lose its tourist haven status.

Environmentalist Katherine Egland said a new highway being planned for Penang Island was in “utter disregard for humanity” as it threatened to lower the living standards of Penangites in the long term.

She also said unnecessary road projects were “deliberately planned environmental catastrophes” when the powers that be should be working on reducing the effects of climate change.

At a Penang Forum talk on the proposed Pan Island Link 1 (PIL 1) highway today, Egland said the state was effectively planning to turn Penang Island into a “pile of concrete”.

“I see this proposal as allowing yourselves to put a price on your identity. It appears that this natural treasure is going to be turned into a pile of concrete, littering and spoiling the natural beauty.

“This has no appeal to tourists so there will certainly be a decline in this industry. It threatens your city from being the treasured pearl, into a shell of its former self. And for what?” she said as an invited guest speaker by the Penang Forum.

Egland is the Environmental and Climate Justice Committee chairperson of the US National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

She is travelling around the world on behalf of NAACP’s policy agenda and participating in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

She is visiting Penang after attending the UN Intersessional meeting in Bangkok as a liaison for the US Climate Action Network.

Developers the biggest winners in road proposal

“Why would Penang want to become a cheap imitation of other less desirable cities? Why would anyone promote trading this uniqueness and rarity to imitate something far from the treasure that you have?

“The highway projects are going to create a lethal cocktail by compounding existing climate change degradation which is causing historical flooding and landslides with this proposed environmental monstrosity,” she said.

Egland said the only people who would benefit from such gargantuan projects were developers, not residents. She also said the promise of saving 15 minutes of travel time through highways was temporary.

“I travelled for almost 24 hours to get here over a distance of 10,000 miles just to experience the beauty of Penang, and people want to save 15 minutes to destroy it?

“Toxic exposures, compromised air quality, contaminated water supply, loss of fishing industry, disruption in the education of children, with 10 schools, 10,000 students, destruction of family recreational parks, not to mention the sanctity of the places of worship?

“It may be a bit dramatic to say these are crimes or sins against humanity, but it certainly shows an utter disregard for humanity,” she said.

Time to be climate smart

Egland said the Penang government ought to engage in “climate smart” planning, where the focus should be on adapting to the effects of climate change on the state’s fragile ecology.

“This is what most cities and countries around the world are doing, preparing for climate change not helping it with unnecessary road developments.

“The biggest winners of this proposal are the wealthy developers, who will get wealthier,” she said.

Egland added: “You have entrusted them (the government) with your destiny and they must be held accountable…not for the wealthy developers or non-existent, yet to be identified people, who may or may not populate the three islands, which have yet to be built.

“The government has a unique opportunity to demonstrate what true change looks like. They have an opportunity to set themselves apart from other politicians around the world and be responsive to the people who elected them.”

The three islands in question are islands to be reclaimed off Penang’s southern coast to help cross finance the larger RM46 billion Penang Transport Master Plan or PTMP.

The PIL 1 project is part of the PTMP’s plans to build a series of roads, Light Rail Transit lines and other means of public transport to alleviate congestion in the state in the coming years.

The PIL 1 highway has caused much unrest among residents and groups who are afraid of its environmental impact.

The highway will link Gurney Drive in the northeast via the hills of Air Itam, Paya Terubong and Sungai Ara before ending close to the second bridge in the south.

The Penang government has since allayed fears, saying the project remained a proposal and would only proceed when federal environmental regulators gave the green light.