Yvonne Tan

Published: January 17, 2022

Land reclamation continues to be one of the most sought-after mega development projects in not only Malaysia, but in the region. The shore of Manila and Jakarta Bay to the world’s largest land reclamation project in South Korea called the Saemangeum Reclamation Project, Malaysia, too, has utilized land reclamation as a key development strategy despite the coastal erosion, water pollution, habitat loss, and destruction leading to declining of biodiversity and water marine resources; not to mention, threatening the livelihoods of generational fishermen and coastal communities. State governments have typically marketed land reclamation projects to bring economic benefits that will far outweigh the environmental cost while affected communities are typically expected to to find more “economically beneficial” work.

Forest City Johor, a luxury mixed development of four reclaimed islands that aimed to house about 700,000 people and generate a revenue of RM30 million for the state of Johor have failed to meet sales targets and with the speed of development which did not allow time for the soil to stabilize, leading to reports of the land showing signs of ground-level sinking. [1] Meanwhile, the Melaka Gateway project which also features a deep-seat port, maritime industrial park, commercial and business developments have caused heavy silting, flash floods and water pollution affecting the Portuguese Settlement and their kristang community. 

Sabahat Alam Malaysia

Who stands to benefit from land reclamation megaprojects?

Ng Khen Khoon, a research associate at UCSI University Kuala Lumpur Malaysia, opines that reclaiming offshore islands have always been particularly attractive to state governments. The reason is, they not only expand the territory of their governance but also gain significant revenue from land-banking schemes while having almost total power in land reclamation legislation and development. Not to mention, having high flexibility in ensuring profit-driven city planning and land management.

Forest City was expected to generate a new source of tax revenue for the Johor state government on top of earning about RM72 million (based on an RM3,000 payment for each of the 24,227 lots) from the revenue of land ownerships in the first phase of projects. Besides that, a projected RM2.58 million from the quit rent of 24,227 lots in the first phase of the project. [2] Although the promise of an increase of tax revenue and economic growth is a huge advantage for the state government, failure to meet sales targets after eight years of development puts in question the profitability of land reclamation.

Ecological Damage as Necessary evil?

A Ph.D. study quantified the impact of coastal reclamation for a 2,100MW coal-fired power plant in 1997 on the fisheries of Mukim Lekir, Perak. The study estimates the annual total biomass decline of fish in 1998 was at 5,481 t compared to the previous year of 7,109 t at South Manjung which is vital to the food security of surrounding communities. Although only 5% of the proposed 8,094 ha to be reclaimed was carried out on the Lekir coastline, the loss benefit of mangrove use was estimated at RM 81,959/year by using the Contingent Valuation Method (CVM). [3]

The impacts of reclamation are not limited to the area where dredging and reclamation development but are also felt where siltation or change in currents occur. Take for example the hill cutting and quarrying of rock and sand for land reclamation seawalls and creating new land banks that can cause sand or soil erosion. Field surveys and research by Sahabat Alam noted that the Seri Tanjung Pinang project near Tanjung Tokong, Penang had disrupted the natural hydro-flow of Penang’s coastal waters causing sea currents to change direction leaving large mud deposits in Gurney Drive. The first phase of the project was completed in 2006 and had turned Gurney Drive from a beach to a mudflat. In a turn of events, the second phase of the project began in 2016 which will include an artificial beach called Gurney Wharf as part of a planned seafront park set to open in parts next year.

Land reclamation has also caused massive disruption of marine ecosystems. The coast of Malacca and Pulau Upeh, located a few kilometres off the coasts, is home to the highest population of critically-endangered hawksbill turtles in the country. However. due to land reclamation works, the number of turtle landings dropped significantly from 111 recorded landings in 2011 to a mere 13 in 2016. Nevertheless, there are still many studies that need to be done into the environmental and socio-economic impacts of the land reclamation projects in Malaysia that cannot be mitigated with only compensation.

How are people responding?

Representatives of the coastal and Kristang communities have not only protested but also formed solidarity networks with other groups around Southeast Asia that call for the end of land reclamation and safeguarding coastal ecosystems. Malaysian groups like Penang Tolak Tambak (Penang Resists Land Reclamation), Save Portuguese Community Action Committee (SPCAC) and Kumpulan Indah Tanjung Aru, Sabah (KITA) have partnered with Indonesian groups like Koalisi Selamatkan Teluk Jakarta (Save the Jakarta Bay Coalition) and Kesatuan Nelayan Tradisional Indonesia (KNTI). They formed the online petition “Jangan rampas laut kami! Stop Stealing our Seas!” on World Fisheries day on 21 November 2019, calling on the governments of Malaysia and Indonesia “to cease and desist from projects of island creation, coastal reclamation and marine sandmining.”

Communities like Mukim Tg Kupang near Forest City, Johor and Persatuan Nelayan Pulau Pinang (Penang Fishermen’s Association) near Penang South Reclamation Project have stated that land reclamation works came as a surprise with little to no consultation or compensation on such megaprojects.  Dr. Serina Rahman, visiting fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, notes that “Coastal development is often inevitable given larger national economic needs and severe imbalances in decision-making power. These developments must then be authentically inclusive and sustainable.” 

Dr. Rahman believes that having more transparent mechanisms within both the state and federal governments in coastal development “ ensures that local communities directly affected by these changes are empowered to participate in and benefit from the changes around them. This is only possible if  this involves all levels of the local community from the very beginning, and if the community is treated as a partner whose needs and wants (as decided upon by them) are met, not as an afterthought or another check off a publicity and public relations list.” As current mega-reclamation projects like Penang South Reclamation Project and Melaka Gateway have recently been put on hold, the environmental and socioeconomic cost of such reclamation projects needs to be accounted for as well.

[1] Serina Rahman, Johor’s Forest City faces critical challenges. ISEAS Publishing, 2017, p. 16.

[2] Ng Keng Khoon, and Guanie Lim. Beneath the veneer: The political economy of housing in Iskandar Malaysia, Johor. ISEAS Publishing, 2017, p. 18.

[3] Mohd Fadzil Shuhaimi bin Ramli, “Impacts of coastal land reclamation on the fisheries of Mukim Lekir, Malaysia.” Ph.D. diss., University of Hull, 2005, p. 281-283.