September 29, 2021

Preserving a precious national asset

3 min read

THE Strait of Malacca has contributed in many ways to the nation’s economy.

As one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, the strait has for decades supported a thriving business in marine logistics.

Ports that have sprouted along the strait have enjoyed a lucrative business for years now. And on shore, the many warehousing and forwarding companies have likewise benefited from the movement of goods along the strait.

The strait has also provided a healthy source of fish and other seafood for the communities living along it. Many now have engaged in commercialised fishing. Tourism is the other economic sector which has derived tremendous business returns from the strait. The many hotels bordering the strait are clear testimony of the thriving tourism business it offers.

Now, however, the strait is no longer in good shape. Pollution has taken a big toll on the environmental health of the strait. There have been frequent reports of its waters being contaminated with all kinds of wastes, from both on shore and offshore sources.

These include toxic pollutants such as heavy metals from industries, pharmaceutical wastes and, increasingly, single use plastics that have become a major issue of late.

Their negative impact on the marine life is a growing worry. Plastics, which break down into microplastics have been found in some of the fish population, bringing into question the safety of the food source.

The heavy shipping traffic has also taken a toll on the safety and security of the strait. Ship to ship and ship to shore communications cry for better management and control. As a result of poor communication, accidents have become common place. It gets even more serious when the accidents result in oil spills that are an expensive exercise to clean up.

And this has happened before. One need only take a look at the beaches in Port Dickson and the other resorts along the strait, all of which show serious deterioration thanks to pollution.

Experts are saying that the growth and expansion of cities along the coast also pose serious threats to the strait. Land reclamation projects are causing concern among environmentalists.

One major problem is that the natural ecosystem of the strait has been severely disturbed. The mangrove swamps, which are critical to the marine life’s breeding environment is also in poor shape.

There has been some harvesting of the mangrove mostly using unsustainable techniques. And the harvested mangrove wood normally ends up as low value charcoal.

The mangrove areas from which fishermen used to bring home bountiful catches of the much sought after river prawns, the udang galah, have largely been converted to grow other crops.

The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami provided proof positive that mangrove trees are invaluable in helping to tame the force of a tsunami – if it wasn’t for them, more inland areas would have been lost. Another plant species which used to thrive in the strait, the sea

grass, is nowhere to be seen. This is another sign that the strait is environmentally unwell and heading for disaster.

About a year ago, the UCSI University hosted a forum to explore ways to bring back the glory the strait once enjoyed.

One of the guest speakers was from the Malaysian Institute for Maritime (MIMA). Another was Prof Datuk Dr Abu Bakar, who is the now the Chairman of Malaysian Green Tech Corporation.

We deliberated on options to resolve the issues plaguing the strait. We have reached out to other institutes which have been engaged in researching various aspects of the strait.

What is needed is a national programme to address the issues that threaten the sustainability of the straits. We are looking to place the programme under the Academy of Sciences, Malaysia. A national level discussion is planned for January 2020.

There is no denying that the Strait of Malacca is one of our prized assets. Since the value of this asset is deteriorating through environmental pollution and other disturbances, it is only fair that we look for ways to resolve the problems. As a national asset it is only proper that the actions to investigate and research the strait are undertaken by the nation as a whole through collaboration and cooperation among the relevant institutes and universities.

PROF DATUK DR AHMAD IBRAHIM

Fellow, Academy of Sciences Malaysia