Malaysia’s fateful choice as land crisis looms


A MAJOR economic and societal catastrophe may soon confront one of Southeast Asia’s most important economies: Malaysia. So powerful and transformative could be this event that it could potentially disappear up to 12,745 sq km of national coastline. And this natural event will likely start happening within a decade or so. As a result, Malaysia will be forced to put new national priorities in place – before it is too late.

If this natural calamity does take place, it will result in a major portion of Malaysia’s national heritage being given over to the sea. Critically, it will have a ruinous impact on the people and economy of Malaysia, as storm surges and massive coastal flooding, in effect, swallow up huge areas of their homeland.

To put this potential disaster in graphic real estate terms, so that the enormity of the problem is made abundantly clear, the total loss of prime land could come up to 1,274,500ha of urban coastline and fertile agricultural landmass. Or put another way, it could result in the disappearance of an area about the size of 17.5 Singapores. Obviously, the unthinkable disappearance of huge swathes of God-given land, never to return, would cripple Malaysia’s destiny.

Deceptively tranquil seas

Admittedly, along 450km of low-lying shoreline on the Straits of Malacca, from Kuala Perlis to Kuala Kedah, from Bukit Mertajam to Teluk Intan, and on down to Port Dickson, everything still looks pretty much everyday normal. There appears to be no identifiable crisis within sight. 

The same can be said for the populated coastline at Malacca, and then south towards Sunga Ramba, and then on to Muar and Semerah and Batu Pahat. There appears to be nothing much to be concerned about at all, or so it seems.

But you would be wrong. 

The same perception of serenity is also evident along Malaysia’s eastern coastline. About 220km of intermittent low-lying coastlands, running from Kuala Terengganu to Tg Sedili, appear immune from any seaward threat.

Likewise, at the southern boot of Malaysia, from Pengerang to Kg Sg Rengit to Kg Punggai, there’s no visible suggestion that outlying seas could soon transform the face of Malaysia.

And while the Malaysian government, like most governments, is heavily armed with all available facts about the worrisome advance of sea levels worldwide, it, no doubt, still perceives that threat to be somewhere over the horizon – decades away, in fact.

Otherwise, it would not be jeopardising its survival by selling the very resources it will need to protect itself against this threat, namely sand, to its neighbours and beyond.

Climate change – code red

This is despite conservative yet stark scientific predictions and details of their obvious implications showing the inevitability of seismic coastal flooding occurring in low-lying areas around 2040-2050 if carbon emissions aren’t reduced significantly.

Helpfully, respected environmental groups such as earth.org and Climate Central have employed new technologies to demonstrate the approaching menace.

By using “sea-level rise and coastal flood maps… based on peer-reviewed science in leading journals” and incorporating large datasets, Climate Central, for one, substantiates in graphic terms why Malaysia faces an environmental catastrophe in the near decades which will result in massive losses of land along coastal areas. 

Meanwhile, ironically, Malaysia is currently entering into a period of unprecedented land expansion through land reclamation. 

Malaysia’s unprecedented land expansion

Currently, there are five mega land reclamation projects planned or being actively pursued. They include, among others, a 404.7ha project in Langkawi; a massive 485.6ha reclamation operation at Penang South Island, and a massive 485.6ha land-building enterprise in Malacca.

These new projects don’t take into account older, still, ongoing reclamation works. At Seri Tg Pinang, 202.3 supplemental hectares have yet to be reclaimed. There is more to come at Pulau Upeh in Malacca, too. And, of course, Johor’s Forest City’s four mammoth man-made islands continue under construction. An additional 809.4ha will be claimed from the sea by 2035. When completed, Forest City, standing alone, will comprise a total of 1,740ha of new land.

All told, that’s nearly 3,318.4ha of new land in the works or on the drawing boards.

However, the environmental peril to Malaysia doesn’t stem from the building of new land, other than real environmental concerns about its impact on fishing reserves and coastal ecosystems. Rather, it originates from an unwitting complacency about taking steps to provide vital protections to its existing low-lying coastal areas, which are highly susceptible to consequential flooding, due to sea rise and other important factors, which will be referred to below.

Dire flood map forecasts

To help understand the enormity of the challenges that lie ahead for Malaysia, Climate Central has developed 2040-2050 flood maps that reveal in alarming detail the susceptibility of Malaysia’s coastlines to the floodwaters along the Straits of Malacca and South China Sea.

Take, for example, 2040-2050 flood predictions at Port Klang, below.

Or, for that matter, at Malacca.

The dark red areas indicate potential areas of devastating flooding. 

For example, Climate Central’s forecast suggests significant flooding, as much as 30km inland at Port Klang. This would overrun Selangor state and reach within 18km of Kuala Lumpur. 

Further north, at Sitiawan and Sg Besar, the path of the seawater would virtually overrun Teluk Intan, and flood up to 58km inland. Between Kedah and Sg Petani, inundation is expected to reach 15-16km. This would mean a loss of some 185,750.7ha of coastal area in this single sector alone. 

From Penang to Port Dickson, including Taiping, aggressive seas could swamp 17km inland, and at Parit Buntar overflow by as much as 25km.

All in all, the west coast could lose as much as 9,745 sq km of coastline, agricultural, and urban areas, or more than 809,371ha.   

This scenario repeats itself on the east coast, but to a somewhat lesser extent. Here 3,000 sq km of land is directly threatened.

Taken together, upwards of 1.27 million ha of vital land is now at risk. This loss of land is akin to the disappearance of an area the size of 52 Kuala Lumpurs.

Economic casualties

No nation can afford to stand by and watch that much land be reclaimed by the sea. A conservative estimate of the cost to Malaysia, based on a valuation of RM33 per sq ft, is at RM4.53 trillion. Not even Malaysia’s robust nominal gross domestic product of US$387 billion (RM1.6 billion) in 2021 could sustain that astonishing level of loss. 

But it’s not only the cost in raw land that would be paid if nothing is done to mitigate the danger that lies ahead. It’s also the toll that would be taken on private and commercial properties as well as invaluable farmlands, all submerged underwater. Furthermore, job losses would be colossal. Equally catastrophic, mass migrations away from swamped areas would be expected to cause social and political turmoil.

Even the important ongoing efforts to grow Malaysia’s economy by reclaiming 82 sq km of new land along the east coast couldn’t replace 33,000 sq km of landmass ruthlessly grabbed by a savaging sea.

Compounded threat

But if this seems like tomorrow’s next big problem, consider this. A recent University of Hawaii scientific study, led by a Nasa Sea Level Change Science Team, issues an urgent warning. The study details the effects of the gravitational pull of the moon, in combination with higher than anticipated sea levels, due to Antarctic and Arctic ice melt. This dreaded combination of events will cause, according to the study, unwelcome and ruinous coastal flooding, beginning in the early 2030s. That is only ten years away.

In other words, the dreaded impact of sea-level rise on low-lying coastlines around the world may have been moved forward in time by several decades. 

Coastal protections – a new priority

If Malaysia is to take all necessary steps to protect its territorial sovereignty from the inexorable sea rise, there is virtually no time to lose, and new national priorities must be put in place, effective, more or less, immediately.

But such an essential shift in Malaysia’s national priorities, at a time when it’s still grappling with the Covid-19 epidemic, will take real leadership at the highest levels.

And on a more practical basis, it will require the construction of ample coastal protections to hold back the encroaching sea. 

Following the historical leadership of the Dutch, who have fought the advance off the sea since 1250 AD by building sea walls, the government may wish to consider instituting a national emergency effort to erect up to 1,000km of sea walls along its vulnerable, exposed shores.

But such an effort could require millions if not billions of tonnes of natural materials: mud and sand. And Malaysia’s sand has always been a major export, even when exports were supposedly banned.

A real sand export ban

To date, of course, Malaysia has profited presumably handsomely from selling its coastal and river sand to importing countries. A big exporter of sand to Singapore, India, Brunei, Indonesia, Thailand, and Hong Kong, Malaysia reported to UN Comtrade sales of 10,247,701 tonnes of sand – more or less – to these six countries, and claimed receipt of US$56,868,640 in national income between 2017 and 2020. No records are yet available for 2021.

The actual figures appear to be much higher. For instance, all six countries reported buying Malaysian sand in the aggregate amount of 78,185,408 tonnes. Further, they claimed they paid Malaysia US$1,108,166,058 for it. Singapore, to its credit, is known for its scrupulous bookkeeping. It claims that between 2017 and 2020 it paid out US$1,028,308,063 of that total, selling an average of at least 20 million tonnes to Malaysia annually.

But UN Comtrade public records a consistent under-reporting of sand sales by Malaysia in each of those years. Compared with the number of sand imports those countries reported receiving between 2017 and 2020, there’s a 86% under-reporting of actual sand sales, and perhaps more importantly, a 95% underreporting of the income received by Malaysia for its exports. According to UN Comtrade, this means that about US$1,051,297,418 has gone missing from Malaysia’s public coffers. That staggering amount rivals the sums that disappeared in former prime minister Najib Razak’s 1MDB scandal. Only 5% were reported.

Regardless of where all that sand and money went, for Malaysia to succeed in this new era of peril, it will need to conserve its natural resources, and more importantly, look out for itself. 

In other words, it should stop trading sand for ringgit. It should no longer trade precious natural resources for paltry sums of under-reported revenues. It should dedicate what little natural sand it owns by right for its own internal purposes. Namely, it should redirect its national treasures to build its own land and defend its territory against what appears to be a threat of unprecedented proportions that will soon advance – and gain ground rapidly once it does.

Good neighbour policy

But lest Malaysia’s government worry about offending its neighbours by halting the sale of cheap sand, the government should rest easy. Indonesia has ample natural sand resources to service coastal protection plans and any land reclamation needs. Brunei, an unimaginably wealthy country, can purchase sand from almost anywhere it wants in the world. Likewise, Thailand, India, and Hong Kong can afford to purchase elsewhere. And according to UN Comtrade, Singapore has an entire global network it relies on to feed its voracious sand appetite.

For instance, Singapore buys significant quantities of sand from the impoverished Philippines and cash-strapped Bangladesh. And from 2018-2020, it purchased US$27,092,544 of sand from Myanmar’s generals, notwithstanding the regime’s previous brutal acts of ethnic cleansing against Rohingya Muslims in 2017, or the military’s recent crackdown on civilians in the streets opposed to the army’s coup against civilian-controlled government, and sanctions by the United States, United Kingdom and European Union. 

It’s Malaysia that needs to worry about itself and address in no uncertain terms its impending land crisis. It requires urgent and decisive action for the sake of the nation, for the sake of its destiny. – September 18, 2021.

* Piyali Banergee is a member of Nature Watch, Bangladesh.

* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight.



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