Malaysia fishermen in last-ditch bid to stop Penang reclamation

Fishermen to appeal to federal government over Penang state’s plan to create three artificial islets off island’s southern shore.

Campaigners say fishing communities on Penang island and on the mainland will be affected by the reclamation work [File: Zainal Abd Halim/Reuters]

George Town, Malaysia – Building three artificial islands from scratch off the island of Penang in Malaysia’s northwest is no small task. But the government of Penang, one of Malaysia’s smallest states, appears determined to take on the challenge.

Approved in 2015, the hugely controversial Penang South Reclamation (PSR) was conceived to fund the larger and much anticipated 46 billion Malaysian ringgit ($11bn) Penang Transport Master Plan (PTMP), which includes the development of a seamless system of new highways, a tunnel connecting the mainland and island and a light rail system to ease the island’s traffic congestion.

The project will create 4,500 acres (1,821 hectares) of land on three artificial islands which will have largely car-free housing and an industrial area built from bamboo, timber and recycled concrete for as many as 15,000 people on each island. Now touted as the main economic driver for Penang’s post-coronavirus recovery, its creators say the PSR will create 300,000 jobs over the next 30 years, reduce brain drain and guarantee a better future for Penang.

However, environmentalists say the three islands – named BiodiverCity – will bury the state’s richest fishing and most biodiverse area in the equivalent of 76,000 Olympic-size swimming pools of sand. They lie a mere 250 metres (820 feet) off the island’s southern coast. The state government claims there is no more land on the island left to develop, even though the largely flat portion of Penang state on the Malaysian mainland, called Seberang Perai, an area that is is slightly bigger than Singapore and roughly two-and-a-half times the size of the hilly island, is at its disposal.

Since the project was approved in 2015 there has been a constant tug-of-war between those concerned with the reclamation’s disastrous environmental consequences, who campaign under Penang Tolak Tambak (meaning “Penang Rejects Reclamation”), and staunch supporters of the state government who argue that the project is the only way to secure the economic growth they want for Penang.

The representatives of the affected fishing communities, led by Zakaria Ismail, the head of the fishermen’s union of Sungai Batu, plan to present an appeal to the federal government this week, asking for the project’s Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) to be withdrawn. At the time of writing, construction has yet to start because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“My hope is that this issue is given full attention,” Zakaria told Al Jazeera. “The Environmental Management Plan report is in favour of us fishermen, and the federal government should cancel the PSR project.”

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