Cover-up job: The rape of hill-slopes continues (Photo credit: Rhino)
Last Friday, another mud slide struck Penang on the stretch of road between Tanjong Bunga and Batu Ferringhi. It was not surprising given the sort of hill-slope development taking place. This one occurred in the vicinity of the Ivory building project. You can see from this picture the sort of hill-slope development taking place in the northern part of the island. They must be crazy if they believe those plastic sheets will stop erosion.
In the event, tractors had to be called in to clear the mud from the road. And traffic was backed up for quite a bit. Here’s what it looked like even after the mud had been cleared from the road.
Penang turning into one huge parking lot (Photo credit: Rhino)
Not much fun for all those motorists caught in the jam.
Yesterday, it rained again, and one concerned resident in Tanjung Bunga told me the sea looked a mess of angry brown – probably from the silt. If you are flying above Penang Island, you can easily notice the water off the immediate coast of Penang looking a murky brown before it blends into the stunning deep blue and green hues of the Andaman Sea further north.
It’s time for the Penang state government to assert strongly that it will defend the environment and ease traffic congestion with more sustainable solutions. It has to rein in developers and tell them in no uncertain terms that the rape of the island and its beaches and hillslopes is not on.
But I fear that politicians, being politicians, will plan only for the next five years – instead of looking for more sustainable long-term solutions.
Such short-term solutions are aimed at winning again in the next general election. This means atracting more investors (never mind what kind) and promoting “development” (with just lip service to protecting the environment) and quickly building bridges and highways and outer ring roads to ease traffic congestion on existing roads. This is what the state government is doing by supporting the second road bridge etc.
But the problem is these short-term solutions might not be in the best interests of Penang and its people in the longer term, say beyond 10 years.
I dread to think what the traffic on the island will be like with five lanes of incoming traffic pouring into the island – three lanes from the expanded Penang Bridge and another two from the proposed second bridge. As it is, Green Lane and Scotland Road are congested during peak hours. What happens when the second bridge too gets congested? We build a third bridge? And when that gets congested too, then what? Only then do we think of more sustainable solutions? How will the narrow streets of George Town ever cope until then? And considering that the oil price is now over US$130 plus per barrel and rising, how many ordinary people will be able to afford commuting on these bridges (let’s not even think of the tolls!) in say ten years?
So why not think of the sustainable solutions now – instead of deferring that to the future, when it would be too late? Shouldn’t we be laying the groundwork now to move away from private vehicle ownership? We should be shunning – not embracing – infrastructure projects that will lead to more road congestion and entrench private vehicle ownership. Instead, we need to be looking at more sustainable and cost effective public transport solutions, perhaps a cross-channel rail link integrated into a comprehensive bus, guided-bus, and street-level rail system.
It was only last week that Penang civil society groups called on the state government to come up with a transport masterplan for the whole state before plunging into irreversible mega projects that would have long term damaging repercussions for the state. So it is a huge disappointment to see the Penang state govt working closely with the BN federal government to permanently entrench private vehicle ownership through bridge infrastructure – even before we can work out a sustainable transport masterplan, as recommended by the leading civil society groups in the state. Can’t we, at least, wait a few months until a progressive transport masterplan is prepared?
One Penangite, concerned about the environment and looking at the hasty arrangements being struck, said, “This is a black day for Penang. Is this government any different from the BN government in terms of the direction it is taking us?” You can see how much the road congestion – even now – has already drained the charm of the island and sapped it of its vitality.
Actually, the new Penang state government has an enormous reservoir of political goodwill from the people following its overwhelming mandate in Penang – which it should not squander on the wrong solutions. If it was to lay its cards on the table and tell the people, this is the new direction we would like to take towards a more sustainable Penang that would be a model for other Asian cities – much like Curitiba is a model for South American cities – it would create such a buzz of excitement and enthusiam among Penangites who value their environment. Many would volunteer their services to sit down and conceptualise a green and sustainable Penang we could all be proud of. This requires a willingness to come together to plan, to engage with the most progressive urban planning and public transport experts (those without vested interests in transport infrastructure firms or projects) and to listen to public views.
George Town now is still one of the most liveable cities in Asia. But, at this rate, for how much longer? Even if we are thinking only of attracting investors, the “liveability” of a city is a major “pull” factor. Would investors – would any Malaysian, for that matter – really want to live in a polluted, congested island that is no different from any other anonymous, overcrowded city.
Penang today is at a crossroads. We can choose to go down a more sustainable path towards a green heritage city with parks, lakes, pedestrian malls, trees, shrubs, flowers, organic vegetable farms and street-level rail systems such as trams and guided buses. Or we can crawl down the congested highway of heavy, unsustainable infrastructure projects that will turn Penang into one huge parking lot shrouded by smog and silt. The choice looks easy to me.
We will live with the consequences of our choices now for generations to come – generations who might one day curse us for the choices we make now. So choose wisely with future generations – not just the next general election – in mind. We need long-term strategies formulated in the best interests of the people of Penang – not politically expedient short-term solutions.