Malaysia moves against coastal erosion crisis

Government funding efforts to grow essential plants but some NGOs say more needs to be done and quickly.

When the former Maldives president conducted a cabinet meeting under water in 2009, it was the best government public relations move for a long time.

What a great way to get publicity and focus global attention on an issue that is so dear to the hearts of many people. Rising sea levels, climate change and the environment all tackled in one easy manoeuvre.

So as Malaysia takes the helm of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2015 and sits on the UN Security Council, one wonders how much influence it may have in the coming months.

What an opportunity to have your voice heard! Wake up government you have a captive audience, start telling your public what you are about and make your position clear for the global audience.

Malaysia is without doubt a very pleasant country, it is people on first impression are accommodating and welcoming, yet when you speak to them about the issues of the day there is a disconnect.

The ones I have met in my brief time here comment on the lack of debate. Their voices are being stifled when they raise an issue at any local or government level.

Voices being stifled

Malaysian authorities do not want to comment and they either make that position clear with their silence or arrest of those that confront them verbally.

The lack of political open free and honest debate just is not happening.

Yet, when the government is doing something positive, they are not shouting about it from the tree tops, telling anyone that will listen about something positive that is happening for the nation as a whole.

Malaysia and Denmark, for example, have been working on environmental projects for over a decade. Both recognise the importance of their coastline and Denmark has years of experience in dealing with water levels and rising seas.

The Danish ambassador to Malaysia invited me to discuss this further. Nicolai Ruge agreed that Malaysia has taken great steps to reduce the incidence of coastal erosion and improve shoreline protection.

Various government ministries and authorities have the latest figures for everyone to pore over, but trying to get a government official to elaborate on the matter is a daunting task.

“One may ask … but one rarely gets a ministerial interview, on even the most uncontroversial of subjects”.

Coastal erosion

So fast forward to Penang, coastal erosion and fresh water fishermen.

They have a huge problem of coastal degradation. Is global warming the reason for the way typhoons have hit Asia Pacific these past few years, or the terrible floods that hit Malaysia in December 2014?

It could be a factor if the bigger global environmental jigsaw puzzle is worked out.

Here, though, the government, local and national is working with local nongovernmental organisations, acknowledging there is a need to support the livelihoods of over 200 fisherman on the island that locals call Pulau Pinang.

Together they identify vulnerable areas, work out which of the 150 species of hmangrove will be best suited to binding the land, grow quickly and feed the natural wildlife that depends on the plants.

Keeping salt water away and encouraging freshwater wildlife that can sustain communities, such as fish, prawns and lobster to return.

With 12 varieties of mangrove to choose from it is a difficult task but the communities have taken it upon themselves to do the job and do it well.

The government has provided funds to grow the plants initially in nurseries and fund the building of basic infrastructure to gather the groups under one roof for discussion and debate about the way forward.

It is working yet we hear very little about it. Some NGOs such as The Consumer Association of Penang say the government need to do more and quickly. It is an easy statement to make but no government official likes to be told what to do.

Yet Malaysia will be doing that soon enough. Telling its neighbours or the international community at the UN what they think and what needs to be done.

‘Lovely coconuts’

Yet on terra firma very little is said about any breakthrough on even issues of the environment.

As one little boy told me on the beach as we were filming: “My grandfather told me we had lovely coconuts here. But now that area is over there under the sea, can coconuts grow under water?”

I did not want to disappoint the boy but told him over there is where the French president is, in the Philippines, with the good and the great of French politics and a group of “A” List celebrities, an endangered species themselves.

Take a good look, Monsieur Hollande, because you should be affected by what you see and the experiences of people who live a very modest life and often on the bottom rung of society.

The decisions you and other world leaders take in Paris at the UN Climate Change conference COP21 will affect millions.

Souhami Bin Abdul Rahman from Penang, who took me out on his boat to show me his problems, spoke for many a Penang fishermen when he said: “World leaders have to remember we are the poor.

“When you think of development for your country, you have to think of us. Your decisions affect us directly and I don’t want my home, livelihood and memories to disappear into the sea forever.”

Source: Al Jazeera