Friday, January 16, 2009

Impact of Sea Reclamation on the Environment

By: Gowri Sritharan

Industrial, recreational and residential projects have been booming throughout the nation, a driving force being advancements in technology and simple human greed. People seem to have been so frantically involved in the pursuit of a progressed tomorrow that the effects of urbanization on the environment has been paid little attention to. Is development still applaudable when it is at the expanse of the environment?

Over the years, stretches of coastline ecosystems throughout the world have diminished due to foreshore development, a process which involves sea reclamation. The hype over beachfront bungalows, sea view apartments, backyard watersports and infinity pools have driven property purchasers to the brim of lands. Developers answer their demands by creating such lands through reclamation.

This act of gaining land from what was originally marsh or water has left devastating effects on the environment, not just to flora and fauna but also immense alterations to sea condition and topographic changes to the surrounding.

Mangrove forest along coastlines received the hardest blow as a result of reclamation. It is believed that over 50% of the worlds mangrove forest has been decimated in the name of progress and development, a worrying fact considering mangrove forest once covered over 75% of the tropical coast globally.

The role of mangroves in a healthy balanced ecosystem has been underestimated, and the realization of its importance came a little too late. In the 2004 tsunami, death tolls soared up to hundred thousands, a figure that could have been far lower had the mangrove forest been preserved. Mangroves act as buffers to tsunamis, hurricanes and raging storms. In Penang for example, tsunami affected areas along Tanjung Tokong were originally mangrove forest which were reclaimed for urbanization purposes. About 66 people lost their lives to the tsunami in Malaysia.

Filling material required for reclamation include marine sand from deeper sea deposits. The process of extricating this sand can leave unimaginable damage to seabeds, from threatening lives of sea organisms to the destruction of their habitats.

Coastal boundaries lined with coral reefs have also been at threat as sea reclamation is carried out by directly dumping sand and dirt onto coral reefs in shallow waters. In Singapore alone, it is estimated that 60% of its reefs have been destroyed as a result of reclamation. China also experienced intensive reef degradation due to sedimentation from coastal constructions and infilling for reclamation purposes.

As boundaries of coastal areas are filled and stretched, the hustle and bustle of inhabitants are soon to follow. A major problem at this stage is pollution. Sedimentation of sand and cement during construction and the disposal of industrial, domestic and human waste after occupancy pollute surrounding beaches and seas. The increased turbidity in polluted waters poses a threat to marine vegetation which cannot survive without sufficient sunlight. Pollutants are also highly chemical in nature and could alter the salinity and acidity of sea water, making conditions unsuitable for marine organisms.

Extensive sea reclamation in China had caused the destruction of 70% of mangrove forests nationwide and the extinction of the sea cucumber. As measures to prevent further damages, the State Oceanic Administration of Beijing has implemented a new regulation to restrict sea reclamation activities. Projects involving infilling and sea enclosures are not approved unless hearings are held and the projects are thoroughly discussed. Violaters of this regulation would be fined a minimum 50,000 Yuan (US$ 6,300). Such regulations should be implemented in Malaysia, where coastline ecosystems are fast diminishing due to extensive sea reclamation activities.

The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) has been made mandatory to anyone intending to develop land commercially or agriculturally in Malaysia. Law and guidelines governing land development and soil conservation are available to ensure that critical activities, such as the construction of high-rise buildings, development on hillslopes and clearing of land, are implemented with proper safeguard and control. Yet, how effective are such assessments when the issue in question is sea reclamation and coastline destruction?

In certain countries, however, land reclamation has been used for remediation purposes and has proven beneficial, not only to humans but to the environment as well. For example, the Grande Cache Coal Corporation is currently using land reclamation and revegetation processes to restore lands to their natural state once mining activity at the Grande Cache Mine, Canada, comes to an end.

For countries where necessary environmental policies do not exist or do exist but are not strongly implemented, sea reclamation may come at the price of the environment. With the recent trend in lavish lagoon-themed lifestyles, more people are dumping cash into coastline properties. Rightfully, we should be investing in our environments. Unlike properties, it cannot be rebuilt, renovated or refurbished, but it has to be preserved while it still exists.

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