Why hasn’t Penang been hit with water rationing so far? Himanshu Bhatt wrote this piece for fz.com a couple of days ago.
‘JUST what is it with Penang?’ That was the comment I just got from a friend in Kuala Lumpur.
While more and more urban centres around Peninsular Malaysia get mired in an escalating water shortage crisis, Penang refuses to show any sign of being affected.
A couple of weeks back, the media in fact splashed images of the state’s executive councillors – of all people – frolicking away for photographers in front of a gushing waterfall beside the Botanic Gardens.
Meanwhile, in Selangor and the Klang Valley, close to seven million people are being impacted by water disruptions due to low water volumes in the dams.
Even Taiping – said to have the highest rainfall for any town in the country – is beginning to undergo rationing due to falling levels in the dam and treatment plant there.
But the water catchments on Penang island have yet to show any major sign of significant depletion. After almost three months since the drought began, there is still underground water. How come?
Simply put, there is no water crisis in Penang, because our forefathers took the defiant step to protect our hills.
It is a vindication of the policy set by the authorities many decades ago – starting with the British colonial administration and followed by the state government after independence – to gazette much of the island’s green slopes and forests.
Against scathing pressures of rising populations and expanding construction projects, our predecessors decided to gazette the range of hills that take up much space on our island – recognising their immense value as natural water catchments.
And therefore today, despite the meagre rainfall over the last three months, we see the continuous flow of natural water.
The situation is a robust consequence of the wisdom in preserving our precious natural assets.
Imagine the hills cleared
As of yesterday, the Ayer Itam Dam on the island was filled to cater for 63 days’ continuous supply without rain and the Teluk Bahang Dam up to 233 days.
The country is in the throes of a massive water crisis.
But in Penang the unpopular decision made by the administrators of the past is saving us, here and now in the present.
Accordingly, it must show that the decisions taken by our present generation – on whether to protect or remove our natural assets – will impact, for better or for worse, our own descendants in the future.
Mind you, the state government has expressed some alarm at the possibility that the situation may deteriorate, and is preparing contingency plans in case the drought worsens.
It has also chided the pampered present-day public for wasteful consumption. Indeed, many people take the water they enjoy today for granted.
We have even heard people make comments about how Penang could have developed like Hong Kong or Singapore, had it allowed real estate construction over much more its land.
With the current crisis casting a shroud around us, do we now dare imagine what our plight would be like had the decision been made in the past to let the precious hills be razed for concrete?
Logan’s prophetic words from 1848
While we start to panic about water shortage and climate change, it is apt to recall the prophetic words penned by British lawyer and ethnologist, James Richardson Logan, some 166 years ago.
His warning, published in the Journal of the Indian Archipelago and Eastern Asia in 1848, was highlighted by blogger Anil Netto in November 2009. Here is what he wrote:
“It was remarked that the whole of the eastern front of the range [of a mountain in Pinang] has within a few years been denuded of its forest… Climate concerns the whole community and its protection from injury is one of the duties of Government…
“The great extent to which the plain of the mainland of Pinang has been shorn of its forest would of itself produce an urgent necessity for a stop being at once put to a war with nature, which must entail severe calamities on the future.”
Logan further noted: “In those mountains of Greece which have been deprived of their forests, the springs have disappeared. In other parts of the globe, the same consequence has followed. The sultry atmosphere and dreadful droughts of the Cape de Verde Islands are owing to the destruction of forests….”
He added: “We are informed that the destruction of jungles on the mountains of Pinang has been allowed to proceed unchecked for the last two years.
“If any of the residents will bring it to the notice of the Governor we are sure from our knowledge of his opinions, with respect to the necessity of preserving hill jungle, that he will not only make an order on the subject, but what is essential, provide means for carrying it into effect.”
A memorial in his name – the Logan Memorial – today stands in front of the Penang court complex in Light Street.