Petrochemicals and seahorses

New Straits Times 4 Jun 08;

PENINSULAR Malaysia's latest environmental cause celebre is surfacing in the Sungai Pulai estuary, an internationally recognised area of wilderness now threatened by industrial development. Overseen by the Port of Tanjung Pelepas authority, a RM2 billion petrochemical plant is slated to rise on more than 2,000 hectares upstream of the estuary, to supply the needs of the huge new manufacturing concerns anticipated for southern Johor.

With the proposed petrochemical plant a crucial base for manufacturing enterprises in gases and solvents, paints and varnishes, fertilisers and pesticides, waste and sewage treatment and a host of other such activities, it seems a faux pas for the PTP to contend the proposed plant will cause little or no degradation to the natural environment of Johor's southwest coast.

This area is environmentally unique. Internationally recognised as a wetlands site of significant biodiversity, the Sungai Pulai estuary's mangrove forest reserve is among the country's most extensive.

Moreover, the estuary debouches onto expansive seagrass beds that are the natural habitat for the charming creature that has become the symbol of resistance to plans for industrial development there: the spotted seahorse, Hippocampus kuda, its Malay species name endearing it even more to locals.

Although the project's sponsors insist they will comply with the dictates of the project's environmental impact assessment, it would be thoroughly disingenuous to suggest that all damaging effects on this ecosystem will be minimised into irrelevance.

Such confident assurances have rung increasingly hollow over the years, as the long-term outcomes of coastal development projects on the mainland and offshore islands have tended to prove environmentalists right and developers wrong.
Yes, land-clearing did raise algal loads in waters around Pulau Perhentian and damage reefs around Pulau Redang. No, it wasn't possible to simply "transplant" an entire coral reef alive in Pulau Tioman. And yes, the Sungai Pulai project will affect the mangroves, the seagrass beds and their seahorses, as well as the birds, fish and marine mammal populations there. The estuary has already suffered considerable declines in fish and prawn stocks in recent years. A petrochemical plant upstream will hardly help restore them.

The trade-off, of course, is the billions of ringgit anticipated in recompense for the Iskandar Malaysia project; an ambitious programme carrying with it the economic hopes of the peninsular south for the rest of this century.

This is the conundrum at the heart of the matter, not whether or not this will be good for seahorses. Make no mistake: it won't be.