LETTER TO THE EDITOR:
ECRL CANCELLATION FINANCIALLY AND ENVIRONMENTALLY THE RIGHT MOVE
The Prime Minister’s decision to cancel the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) and gas pipeline projects makes economic and environmental sense. For the sake of Malaysia’s natural environment, it is hoped that none of these projects would be revived even when it becomes financially viable to proceed with them at a later stage.
The ECRL, had the construction works proceeded, would have bisected the Rantau Panjang Forest Reserve (RPFR) into two separate forest areas. This would have effectively fragmented over 230 hectares of the RPFR, cut off any possible safe wildlife corridors and increased the risk of human-wildlife conflicts and wildlife deaths.
The plans for the proposed ECRL rail alignment also showed that it was to cut through a section of mangrove forest as it approached Port Klang. This would have grave consequences on the health of the mangrove ecosystem in the area, which as we all know, plays an important role in erosion prevention, flood mitigation, water quality regulation, and as nurseries for fish and other marine life. Not only that, the project would have also been detrimental to the livelihood, agricultural and fishing activities and water supply of the local coastal communities. The project is said to be capable of creating business and employment opportunities, but it is foreseeable that it would also affect the livelihood and quality of life of rural communities. It is hoped that all future infrastructure projects will take these factors into consideration before proposing activities that will alter the landscape of mangrove forests.
The ECRL project, had it proceeded, would affect up to 12 forest reserves, including the Central Forest Spine (CFS), 5 major rivers in Kelantan, 16 rivers in Terengganu, 5 rivers in Pahang and 1 river in Selangor. The environmental cost of the project is simply too high for a rail link that most Malaysians perceive to be an expensive convenience that may be nice to have but is inessential and unnecessary.
Although the ECRL project team and the previous Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment had in 2017 attempted to reassure environmental organisations that the project would reduce forest loss and wildlife deaths through the use of an estimated 45 tunnels and 29 wildlife viaducts, it cannot be denied that wildlife populations, air and water quality and forested areas would still be adversely affected by the project, both during the construction process and after the completion of the project. Tunnels, fences and wildlife viaducts and crossings may not always provide a solution and may indeed create fresh problems for wildlife populations. Fences erected to prevent wildlife from encroaching onto railway tracks could further fragment habitats and limit a species’ natural range and breeding opportunities. A study conducted by wildlife researchers with the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (Perhilitan) from 2011-2013 on the effectiveness and usefulness of wildlife viaducts found that the viaducts studied were only effective crossing structures for only a few species, and that some species took a longer time to adapt to new crossing structures (Source: The Star, 22 Sept 2014). In the meantime, more wildlife lives would be lost to traffic and human-wildlife conflict, including hunting and illegal poaching. The same study also recorded the presence of hunters and campers at the viaducts, thus highlighting the fact that one cannot just construct a wildlife viaduct and expect it to mitigate wildlife deaths by the mere fact of its existence. Wildlife viaducts and crossings need constant maintenance and monitoring, and in spite of this may still not register the desired level of effectiveness. The best option is always to divert and realign any proposed infrastructures away from environmentally-sensitive areas. Opening up forested areas for road, highway and railway construction has almost invariably led to an increase in illegal logging, poaching, and hunting and the conversion of forests into land for human activity.
Now that the project has been cancelled and construction sites and cleared forests will be left behind, I support and commend Ketari assemblywoman Young Shefura Othman’s recommendation that the abandoned project sites be restored and replanted with trees without delay to prevent greater environmental damage, landslides, flash floods and the encroachment of poachers, loggers and illegal settlers.
The viability of all existing and future infrastructure projects should not merely be based on the availability of funds and the projected return on investment. It should always prioritise the environment and consider factors such as how it would affect ecologically sensitive areas, watersheds, hill slopes. wildlife and bird habitats, water and air quality, and rural and indigenous communities. Financial debts can be paid off over time, but environmental damage and biodiversity loss can be almost impossible to rectify.
WONG EE LYNN
GREEN LIVING SPECIAL INTEREST GROUP,
MALAYSIAN NATURE SOCIETY