Sand mining, a by-product of Penang reclamation project?

The Penang South Reclamation (PSR) project will have serious consequences in both Penang and Perak. Penang and the PSR developers hope to fund the Penang Transport Master Plan through the development of three artificial islands to the south of the island. If the project succeeds, a handful of people will become extremely wealthy but whether it will benefit the ordinary people remains to be seen. While the project will be of value to the emerging middle class and foreigners, the fishermen and those in the low-income bracket will suffer.

Over in Perak, there are no benefits to speak of except for those who profit from the sale of sand. Sand is a valuable commodity as it is vital for the construction industry. But complaints have been lodged with the local authorities about the poor enforcement of laws pertaining to the mining of sand, both legally and illegally, from rivers and the seabed. Little has been revealed about the cost to both people and the environment.

Studies on sand mining and land reclamation have been conducted in Malaysia and Myanmar’s Irrawaddy River, India, California and, closer to home, in Johor and Lumut.

The most obvious loss will be the livelihood of several thousand fishermen along the coast. The amount of siltation and turbidity of the water will increase. The fish, crustacea and shellfish thrive in a fragile eco-system. The suspended particles will destroy the breeding habitats of the sea meadows and disturb food chain patterns. The fishermen will experience reduced catches and beaches will become mud flats.

Mangrove swamps, which form a natural barrier to tidal surges and rising sea water levels, will become vulnerable and the potential for floods in the surrounding area will be great.

Some villagers have reported that their land has disappeared into the rivers. Riverbank erosion, caused by huge amounts of sand and gravel being mined, makes riverbanks unstable. In Myanmar, whole villages have slipped into the water.

As water irrigation channels source their water from rivers, padi farmers may soon face problems related to the mining of sand from rivers.

The pumps in the water intake plants which deliver water to the people have experienced many problems caused by the sedimentation of rivers. The cost of repairing and maintaining the equipment will increase.

Sand mining will create craters and expose rocks on river and sea beds. Fishing nets will get snared on these jagged structures, increasing repair costs for the fishermen.

If the PSR is allowed to continue, the fishermen will have to travel further out to sea, in boats which are not really meant for the open sea. This will mean higher costs and bigger investments. These fishermen already struggle to bring in a decent haul and it may not be long before some end up having to abandon the industry.

The fishermen, and others, must wake up to the dangers posed by sand mining in Perak, and the destruction of their fishing grounds off Perak and the south of Penang.

The Perak MB should take stock of the environmental problems that will befall the state if vast quantities of sand are allowed to be removed for this project.

On hill slopes and mountains, indiscriminate logging has caused silting, flooding and similar destruction, not just to the forest but also to the way of life of the Orang Asli.

Downhill, the effects of sand mining thanks to poor enforcement and an administration which does not seem aware of the risks posed by the activity threaten the lowlands and coastline.

The landing points on the sandy Segari beach where the green turtles lay their eggs have already been affected. Mangrove forests will be seriously impacted by sand mining, and when the wetlands suffer, another source of revenue will be lost. The tourists and bird enthusiasts who flock to Kuala Sepetang to observe the migratory birds will go elsewhere once the wetlands have been destroyed.

By then, people would have learnt about the detrimental effects of sand mining because the famous seafood in Kuala Sepetang would have become unavailable. The Perak MB must act to safeguard Perak and its people by doing his job and curbing sand mining before it is too late.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.