Green issues: Top 10 in 2010

by Gan Pei Ling / 24 January 2011 © The Nut Graph

WHAT were the environmental highlights and low points of 2010? Do we stand a chance in conserving Malaysia’s amazing biodiversity and rich natural resources?

With the help of several “greenie” friends, I made a list of 10 major environmental happenings in Malaysia in 2010. These events give us an indication not only of how the environment continues to be under threat in Malaysia, but also how efforts are being made to combat that threat.

What stood out for you environmentally in 2010? What appalled, encouraged or enlightened you? List them down so that we may have a better picture about how we Malaysians are caring for our environment.

Power

1. Nuclear power plants

(Pic by merlin1075 / sxc.hu)

The federal government decided to go nuclear, announcing in May 2010 that Malaysia would build a nuclear power plant by 2021. Serious concerns were raised regarding safety and feasibility, considering the disastrous effects of accidents and shoddy radioactive waste management. Activists also questioned whether the government had exhausted renewable energy options, especially solar and biomass.

Despite this, Energy, Green Technology and Water Minister Peter Chin announced in December 2010 that Malaysia intended to build two plants, the second expected to be ready a year after the first.

To date, the government has not made public its nuclear waste management plan or emergency plan detailing what steps it would take in the event of a radioactive leak or natural disaster.

2. Sabah coal plant

Meanwhile, the federal government is planning to build a 300-megawatt coal plant on Sabah’s pristine east coast. Environmental coalition Green Surf and other activists have been campaigning tirelessly against the plant, reminding the government to consider cleaner alternatives like biomass and geothermal.

The plant’s detailed environmental impact assessment was rejected by the Environment Department. However, Chin said last December the proposed coal plant would go ahead, claiming it was the best option to ensure uninterrupted power supply.

3. Bakun Dam

The flooding of the Bakun Dam began in October 2010. The flooding of the 69,000ha area, roughly the size of Singapore, to the top of the Bakun Dam wall, about half the height of the Petronas Twin Towers, is expected to take over seven months.

Disputes over compensation for the approximately 10,000 indigenous peoples displaced from their land remain unresolved. The construction of the Bakun Dam began in 1996, and its cost was reported to have ballooned from RM4.5bil to RM7.5bil due to cost overrun and compensation for delays.

Despite that, Bakun is just the beginning. The 944-megawatt Murum dam is currently being constructed, and it was announced in February last year that five more dams with a combined capacity of 3,000-megawatts are in the pipeline.

4. Renewable energy bill

(Pic by ronaldo/sxc.hu)

The long-awaited Renewable Energy Act was finally tabled in Parliament in December 2010. Once passed, the Act will enable the public to sell electricity generated from renewable energy, most likely solar, to the power grid through the feed-in tariff scheme. Tenaga Nasional Bhd (TNB) will buy user-generated electricity at above-market rates. Concerns, however, are that TNB might pass on the cost to consumers by raising general electricity tariffs.

Other than the feed-in-tariff, it is unclear how the government intends to fulfill its target of generating 11% electricity from renewable energy by 2020.

Rivers

5. Rejang river logjam

This bizarre incident last October involved Malaysia’s longest river, the Rejang. Logs and debris choked the mighty river for 50km, making many places inaccessible by boat.

The Sarawak government tried to pass off the incident as a “natural” disaster due to floods. A BBC report, however, quoted the blog Hornbill Unleashed, which blamed poor infrastructure and excessive logging for the logjam.

Animals

6. Capture and trial of wildlife trafficker Anson Wong

In August 2010, Wong was caught with 95 boa constrictors in his bag at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport. I, personally, was delighted when the High Court substituted a Sessions Court sentence of six months’ jail and a RM190,000 fine with a five-year jail term. The heavier sentence will be more likely to serve as an effective deterrent.

In addition, Parliament passed a tougher Wildlife Conservation Act, which came into force in December 2010. Punishments include fines of up to RM500,000. and up to five years’ jail for smugglers of protected species like tigers and rhinos.

7. GM mosquitoes

(Illustration by Nick Choo)

Dengue, carried by the Aedes mosquito, has been endemic in Malaysia for years. Genetically modified (GM) mosquitoes have been proposed as a solution to curb its spread. The mutant male mosquitoes do not produce any offspring and help lower the mosquito population.

Great fears, however, have been expressed over this experiment as experts say removing the mosquito from the ecosystem could wreak havoc on other species, and ultimately, the environment.

Despite these concerns, the Health Ministry intended to release GM mosquitoes in Bentong, Pahang and Alor Gajah, Malacca. Protests from local and international groups resulted in a cancellation of the programme.

Forests

8. Selangor State Park

The federal government intends to build the Kuala Lumpur Outer Ring Road (KLORR) through the Selangor State Park to ease traffic congestion. This is in spite of the park being categorised as an Environmentally Sensitive Area (Rank 1) under the National Physical Plan-2. It serves as an important water catchment area, and as such, no development, except for eco-tourism, research and education purposes, should occur there.

The highway was originally designed to cut through the park and a potential Unesco World Heritage site,  the Klang Gates Quartz Ridge. The Selangor government convinced the developer to dig a tunnel to avoid damaging the quartz ridge last November. But it remains to be seen whether they can persuade the developer to re-route KLORR away from the state park, too.

Public outcry, not just from environmental groups but also concerned residents, continue. It remains to be seen whether the federal government will scrap its plans.

9.  Kuala Langat South peat swamp forest

Wong (front) visiting the Kuala Langat South peat swamp forest in December 2010.

The Selangor Agricultural Development Corporation proposed in 2010 to convert the 7,000ha Kuala Langat forest reserve into oil palm plantations. The clearing of the forest could reportedly generate RM1bil in timber revenue.

Selangor executive councillor for the environment Elizabeth Wong has led opposition to this proposal. A biodiversity audit, done with the assistance of environmental groups, found tapirs, sun bears, white-handed gibbons and rare trees.

The audit report has yet to be presented to the menteri besar, but I’m hopeful he will make the right decision. After all, the Pakatan Rakyat-led government promised to ban logging for 25 years when it came into power in 2008.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

10. No plastic bag day

The no plastic bags campaign, pioneered in Penang in 2009, is now nationwide. Plastic bags are no longer free on Saturdays except in Penang, where they’re not free every day.

Plastics manufacturers’ indignant reactions amuse me. Although the campaign may reduce our reliance on plastic bags, it is mainly symbolic. The campaign helps us rethink the impact of our use-and-throwaway consumption on the environment, but is unlikely to eliminate all use of plastics bags, or plastics, in our lives. Perhaps the manufacturers need to start listening and evolve in accordance with consumer demand for more sustainable products.

Although I initially found the above list a bit depressing, I realised that the story of public resistance against potential ecological destruction echoed throughout. And there are many more environmental heroes that did not make it into the list. A rural Kelantan community that successfully solved the human-elephant conflict in their village, for example. Or the Bukit Koman community that continues their attempts to protect their village from pollution from a gold mine.

And I’m sure there are many, many more such stories.


Again, Gan Pei Ling finds herself more inspired by grassroots communities and individuals than governments in 2010.

Plastic matters

by Gan Pei Ling / 22 November 2010 © The Nut Graph

SELANGOR’S No Plastic Bag Day campaign recently came under attack in a report on online news portal The Malaysian Insider.

Elizabeth Wong

The 9 Nov 2010 report claimed that “hypermarkets and retail shops” in Selangor have suffered up to 30% decline in their businesses on Saturdays since the Selangor government implemented the campaign in January 2009. In a 12 Nov 2010 report, the news portal also rubbished Selangor executive councillor Elizabeth Wong‘s claim, that plastic bags are an environmental problem, by citing environmentalists and scientists.

Are The Malaysian Insider reports accurate? Are they doing what good journalism is meant to do — hold public officials accountable for the decisions they make that affect public life? Or do the reports miss the point by taking things out of context?

Sloppy reporting

Interestingly, even though Penang has been more aggressive in implementing the campaign, the Selangor government has suffered most of the brunt from The Malaysian Insider’s reporting.

More interesting was how the news portal attempted to be critical of the Selangor government’s campaign. The news portal only cited three supervisors in its 9 Nov 2010 report that claimed “hypermarkets and retail shops” in Selangor had suffered up to 30% drop in businesses on Saturdays. It also quoted only customers that were unhappy with the state’s campaign.

A customer in Carrefour Market helps herself to cardboard boxes provided as an alternative to plastic bags — the mini hypermarket in Bangsar South has a no-plastic-bag policy (© Lainie Yeoh)

In comparison, The Star‘s 11 Jan 2010 report in the campaign’s early days found that even though some shoppers were caught unaware, many were still supportive of the campaign. In addition, retailers like Tesco, Giant, Jusco and Ikea actually started encouraging its customers to use reusable bags even before the state government began its campaign.

It is also problematic when the reports stress a 30% loss in business on Saturdays without asking the question whether that loss in business has been compensated in an increase on other days. If it has, then the alarming claims that business has been affected by an environmental-friendly policy may be misguided and mischievous.

The Malaysian Insider report misses the nuance and context of the criticism by scientists; they are against focusing solely on banning plastic bags.

On top of that, The Malaysian Insider claimed in its 12 Nov 2010 report that scientists and environmentalists have dismissed plastic bags as a “non-issue”. To put things into context however, it is true that scientists and environmentalists have been critical of governments but only of those that focus on banning plastic bags alone without implementing more concrete and comprehensive plans to save the environment.

Hence, it is only problematic if the No Plastic Bag Day campaign were all that the Selangor government was doing in its effort to conserve the environment. That isn’t the case at all.

The Pakatan Rakyat-led government enforced a moratorium on logging in Selangor as soon as it came into power. The Selangor Forestry Department is taking various measures to prevent illegal logging.

The Selangor government also gazetted the Kota Damansara forestAyer Hitam forest, and the firefly sanctuary in Kampung Kuantan in 2010. The state is engaging on a long-term plan to rehabilitate the Klang River as well.

There is much more the Selangor government could do to conserve the environment but I believe credit should be given where it is due, too.

Small steps

The Petronas Twin Towers during Earth Hour 2009 (© Lai Seng Sin | Wiki Commons)

Sceptics often criticise campaigns such as No Plastic Bag Day and Earth Hour on the basis that they merely create the illusion that small steps can make a difference. On my part, I would not be so quick to dismiss these small steps because they do help to increase awareness.

Additionally, reducing waste requires consumers to be constantly mindful of the impact of our actions so that we can choose to reduce our consumption at many levels. Symbolic campaigns like No Plastic Bag Day and Earth Hour may not save the planet, but I think they do serve to inspire consumers to a certain degree to rethink the impact of their consumption patterns on the environment.

Any environmentalist will tell you there is no one way to save the planet. Solving our impending environmental crises requires a fundamental shift in the way we think about and treat our environment.

Despite the urgency of these problems though, such change is expected to take decades. The least the media could do is to report on the issues as accurately and fairly as possible to contribute to meaningful debate and greater awareness about how our personal consumption choices can accumulatively save or destroy our planet.


Gan Pei Ling does not fancy picking up plastic bags or bottles in a beach or waterfall clean-up. She salutes those who do so regularly.

Related post: The plastic menace

Restricting indigenous rights

by Gan Pei Ling / 18 October 2010 © The Nut Graph

IN the upcoming Galas by-election, Umno is expected to harp on “Ladang Rakyat”, a PAS state government development project that has reportedly benefited a private company over the rights of settlers. While Umno is championing the land rights of Malay Malaysian settlers, however, the Orang Asli remain one of the most impoverished communities under the Barisan Nasional (BN) government.

The Orang Asli remain one of the most impoverished communities under the BN government.

In the name of development, customary lands belonging to the indigenous peoples have been seized; their forests, houses and crops destroyed with minimal or zero compensation. And yet, Umno has announced its determination to win the votes of the 2,000 Orang Asli voters in the by-election.

How it will do that will soon be revealed when campaigning begins. What is more significant though is that over the years, the BN government has systematically used the Aboriginal Peoples Act 1954 and Jabatan Hal Ehwal Orang Asli (JHEOA) to exert control over Orang Asli communities. A new land policy the BN government passed in 2009 looks set to further restrict indigenous rights even as Umno clamours for settlers’ land rights.

Problematic new land policy

The National Land Council, chaired by Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, passed a controversial Orang Asli land policy in December 2009. Muhyiddin claimed the new policy would help to eradicate poverty among the indigenous communities in the peninsula.

Orang Asli at a September 2008 gathering in Kuala Lumpur

However, over 2,000 Orang Asli marched to the Prime Minister’s Office in March 2010 to submit a memorandum in protest of the policy that was passed without consultation with the indigenous communities.

Under the new policy, instead of recognising Orang Asli rights over their customary lands, the state would instead “give” them between 0.8 to 2.4 ha of land per family, and an additional 5,000 square feet to build houses.

Colin Nicholas

But Centre for Orang Asli Concerns coordinator Dr Colin Nicholas warns that under the policy, it is likely the Orang Asli will no longer be recognised as indigenous peoples.

“One of the key elements in the definition of indigenous peoples is their collective attachment and control over a particular customary land,” he said in a 9 Oct 2010 Bar Council forum in Kuala Lumpur. Nicholas noted that the new land policy does not take into account the Orang Asli’s unique way of life and the diversity of their traditional land use practices.

“Unlike the Malay [Malaysians] who have their Malay reserves, and the Sabah and Sarawak natives who can make a claim over their native customary rights (NCR) lands, the Orang Asli will only be accorded individual land titles,” Nicholas explained.

Furthermore, only sanctioned development agencies, not Orang Asli themselves, would be allowed to develop the lands. In other words, the Orang Asli would have little control over their land.

Additionally, the communal customary lands known as tanah adat or “roaming areas” will be lost to the Orang Asli under the proposed amendments to the Aboriginal Peoples Act 1954. The Orang Asli would also be prohibited from making land claims in court once they accept the government’s land titles.

Nicholas claimed the new land policy was the federal government’s reaction to restrict Orang Asli land rights after the Adong Kuwau and Sagong Tasi landmark rulings, which extended recognition of Orang Asli rights to their traditional lands and resources.

Aboriginal Peoples Act

Apart from the new land policy, the BN government has also yet to amend or repeal the problematic Aboriginal Peoples Act 1954 that does not fully recognise Orang Asli land rights.

A colonial product, the law was supposed to “provide for the protection, well-being and advancement of the aboriginal peoples of Peninsular Malaysia”.

Augustine Anthony

However, lawyer Augustine Anthony pointed out during the Bar Council forum that all 19 sections in the Act need to be amended, if not repealed.

“For example, under Section 3(3) of the Act, it is the minister that decides who is an Orang Asli (not the Orang Asli themselves).

“Also, under the Act, an aboriginal area or reserve can be changed to Malay reserve or a forest reserve by the state at will,” said Anthony, adding that the Orang Asli cannot transfer, lease or sell their land without the consent of the director-general of Orang Asli affairs.

“Clearly, the Act was established by the British to exert control over the Orang Asli communities during the communist era,” said Anthony. And the BN government has continued to use the same tool to control the Orang Asli since independence.

Who is responsible?

Full house at the Bar Council forum

Conducted in Bahasa Malaysia, close to 200 Orang Asli attended the Bar Council forum that sought Orang Asli feedback on the new land policy. All voted against the new policy.

Additionally, many spoke out against JHEOA and the BN government during the forum. A few complained that the politicians would make sweet promises to grant them land titles during election campaigns, but disappear without a trace after that.

“We can always blame the government, but the way I see it, we Orang Asli must unite and stand up for ourselves, too,” said Tijah Yok Chopil from Jaringan Kampung Orang Asli Semenanjung Malaysia.

Tijah Yok Chopil

“We can’t keep thinking that all our problems including our land woes will be solved once we vote for a particular party. BN or Pakatan candidates, we can’t just sit down [and wait for them to fulfil their election promises]. We need to look for them after the elections,” Tijah, a Semai, said.

Indeed, while civil society and the Bar Council may help to amplify indigenous voices, it is still up to the Orang Asli to continue to pressure the federal and state governments to uphold their rights and fulfil election promises. The Galas by-election will provide just the opportunity to keep doing so.


Gan Pei Ling wishes governments would stop trampling on nature and the indigenous communities in the name of “development”.

Threatening the turtles

by Gan Pei Ling / 27 September 2010 © The Nut Graph

WHEN a friend said he wanted a photo of himself riding on a sea turtle’s back, it made me flinch.

And yet, I doubt I would have winced had I not heard stories about how divers and snorkelers have disturbed and distressed turtles in the sea. If not for my marine-biologist friends, I probably would not have given this friend’s casual remark a second thought. After all, humans ride on horses, cows and elephants. So why not sea turtles, too?

Green turtle

Putting humans on top

This friend and I were volunteering on a turtle conservation project for a week at Chagar Hutang, Redang Island in September this year. What he wanted to do was ironic, considering that we were there to help conserve turtles that have been swimming in our seas since the age of the dinosaur.

Underlying his desire to ride a sea turtle is a worldview that seeks to dominate nature. It is a view that places humans above all other species, and regards other creatures as existing solely to satisfy human needs, desires and greed.

I do not blame my friend for holding a prevalent worldview that has been passed on by previous generations. But I am troubled by a paradigm that considers humans separate from nature, when it is impossible to divorce humans from the environment that sustains us.

Isn’t it precisely this sort of worldview that leads to human exploitation of nature and her beings on Earth? Indeed, the major environmental crises confronting our generation – climate changebiodiversity loss, and pollution, to name just a few – are a result of this problematic worldview.

People who continue to hunt hawksbill turtles for their exquisite shells, who sell or consume sea turtle eggs and meat, and who destroy turtles’ nesting beaches in the name of “development” all hold the same worldview.

And whether it’s by throwing plastic bags that end up choking sea turtles, buying from fisherfolk who use methods that kill marine turtles indiscriminately, or by simply being apathetic, we are guilty of threatening these ancient beings into extinction.

Sea turtles in Malaysia

Green turtle hatchlings

Malaysia is blessed because four out of the seven living sea turtle species in the world can be found here. However, two of them – leatherback and olive ridley turtles – are effectivelyextinct in our country.

The leatherbacks, the largest among all, recorded over 10,000 annual nestings in Terengganu in the 1950s. However, over the past decade, the numbers have dwindled to just a handful. Once Terengganu’s star attraction, only one leatherback was reportedly seen in Rantau Abang this year.

As for the olive ridleys, nesting is only reported occasionally in Penang and Kelantan. None has been sighted in Terengganu since 2005. The numbers are probably insufficient to keep the population alive.

In comparison, hawksbill and green turtles are doing better. The Sabah Turtle Islands have the highest nesting concentration of hawksbill turtles in Southeast Asia, with an average of 500 to 600 annual nestings. Other nesting sites can also be found in Malacca and Terengganu.

Green turtles are the most widely distributed species in Malaysia. As with the leatherbacks, however, green turtle nesting has dropped dramatically since the 1950s, from 20,000 in the Sarawak Turtle Islands to a few thousand only in recent years. However, its population in the Sabah Turtle Islands has increased, and nestings in both Sabah and Terengganu also number in the thousands.

Changing our attitudes

Millions of ringgit have been spent to conserve our sea turtles during the past few decades. Turtle sanctuaries can now be found in Terengganu, Sabah and Sarawak.

However, The Star highlighted in a June 2010 report that laws relating to sea turtle conservation are still inconsistent and inadequate. The sale and consumption of turtle eggs, for example, have yet to be banned across all states. Additionally, turtle killings are allowed for a fee of RM100 in Johor, Kelantan and Negri Sembilan.

Nesting

Conservation projects, educational campaigns. and strict laws regulating turtle conservation aside, what needs to change is the fundamental attitude humans hold towards other creatures.

As long as we continue to hold on to the worldview that treats nature as inferior and something to be dominated, we are unlikely to learn to respect it and its creatures, be it sea turtles, tigers or pandas. If we truly want to conserve the environment, our generation needs to re-learn that being top of the heap doesn’t mean those at the bottom can be exploited without repercussions for our species.


Gan Pei Ling has been wondering for a while if it is too much to ask members of the “superior” and “civilised” human species to learn to treat other Earthlings with respect and dignity.

Lessons from The Story of Stuff

by Gan Pei Ling / 18 August 2010 © The Nut Graph

HAVE you ever wondered where all your stuff comes from, and where they end up after you throw them out? I do, and environmentalist Annie Leonard does, too. That was the reason she created The Story of Stuff.

The video became an online hit soon after its December 2007 release. In 2009, The New York Times reported that thousands of schools, churches and other institutions in the US have used the video to get people to rethink the environmental, social and economic impact of mindless consumerism.

Leonard’s team has since released new videos like The Story of Bottled Water in March 2010 and The Story of Cosmetics in July 2010.

One may argue that her videos are US-centric, but I think Leonard has achieved what environmentalists previously failed to do. She simplified the structural problems prevalent in the materials economy into a 20-minute video that even a nine-year-old child can understand: that our economies are structured based on the false assumption that we can have “infinite growth on a planet with finite resources”.

Big picture

A former Greenpeace employee and steering committee member of Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, Leonard spent almost two decades investigating environmental health and waste issues. She has visited factories and dumps in Asia and Africa.

She has been giving talks and advocating for the need for people to consume mindfully for years. However, she was shocked to discover that nobody understood what she was talking about when she gave her usual talk during a training programme at Rockwood Leadership Institute in 2005.

That was when Leonard realised she needed to simplify her vocabulary and do away with sentences like “paradigm shift in relation to materials”. She redid her story from the beginning and created The Story of Stuff.

Since then, millions of people have watched the film, and it has been translated to more than 15 languages, according to the Los Angeles Times. She has also released a book of the same name this year.

Leonard

Additionally, Leonard has successfully explained academic terms like “planned obsolescence”, “manufactured demand” and “externalised cost” in layperson terms in her videos.

Planned obsolescence is another word for ‘designed for the dump’. It means they actually make stuff that is designed to be useless as quickly as possible so we will chuck it and go buy a new one.

“It’s obvious with stuff like plastic bags and coffee cups, but now it’s even big stuff: mops, DVDs, cameras, barbeques even, everything!” Leonard exclaims in exasperation in The Story of Stuff.

“Manufactured demand is a desire for something that didn’t just develop naturally but was stoked by some outside force. [It’s] a core strategy of today’s consumer economy.

“In order to get people to keep buying stuff, when most of us have plenty of stuff already, companies manufacture demand [through advertising] so we feel like we need ever more and ever newer clothes, cars, toasters, furniture, shoes … everything.

“I mean, it’s not like any of us just woke up and said, ‘I need, really need, a new cell phone to replace my perfectly functional one’,” explains Leonard in her footnoted-script in The Story of Bottled Water.

Controversy

However, Leonard’s videos have stirred up controversy in the US. Conservatives have attacked her for being anti-capitalism and being a Karl Marx in ponytail.

Leonard refutes in an interview with Elle magazine that she is anti-capitalism: “I’m anti a system that’s poisoning us and protecting the wealthy over the poor.”

I think Leonard tells her stories from people’s perspective, and elucidates how corporations and governments have put profit over people over the years. The powers-that-be are uncomfortable with the messages in Leonard’s videos precisely because these messages challenge the status quo.

(Pic by lusi / sxc.hu)

Instead of encouraging people to buy more and more stuff so corporations can make more profit, Leonard asks people to be mindful of their consumption habits. Instead of encouraging people to conform to societal beauty standards by buying cosmetics, Leonard reminds the public to be aware of the toxic chemicals in them.

The Story of Stuff website contains materials and resources for people to launch a campaign or hold a screening and discussion in their community.

What Leonard is doing may be perceived as dangerous to corporations and governments. Through the new media, she and her team are empowering the public to mobilise and organise, for example, to reclaim their rights by demanding for clean tap water from governments and safe cosmetics from corporations.

This would, of course, translate to “trouble” for some corporations and governments. But to be fair, The Story of Stuff team is merely trying to hold governments and corporations accountable. And they ought to be credited for inspiring people into action, even if it’s the act of rethinking how we consume.


Although Annie Leonard often reveals awful stuff people don’t want to know in her videos, Gan Pei Ling is looking forward to reading her book and watching the next video installment, The Story of Electronics.

Protecting our corals

by Gan Pei Ling / 4 August 2010 © The Nut Graph

Reef Check Malaysia conducting a reef survey (pic courtesy of Reef Check Malaysia)

IN July 2010, several popular dive sites in Peninsular Malaysia were closed due to coral bleaching. Marine Park Department director-general Abd Jamal Mydin told reporters that in Pulau Payar in Kedah for example, an estimated 60% to 90% of corals were affected by the bleaching. Besides the peninsula, signs of coral bleaching have also been reported in Sepanggar Bay, Sabah.

Reef Check Malaysia general manager Julian Hyde tells The Nut Graph that the bleaching was first observed in April 2010, and the situation got worse in May and June. However, he says some divers have observed that the colours have returned to some of the corals in the past two to three weeks. “Contrary to popular belief, bleached corals are not necessarily dead. The decision to close down some of the popular sites is a short-term measure to reduce stress on the corals and thus increase their chances of recovering from the bleaching,” says Hyde in a phone interview.

But why are our corals bleaching? And why should we care what happens to them?

Stressed and threatened

Hyde says coral bleaching may happen when corals are stressed due to a variety of reasons that include increased sea temperature and pollution. However, mass bleaching is usually linked to high water temperature.

“Corals are very sensitive; a rise in 1°C to 2°C may cause them to bleach. When temperature increases, the symbiotic micro algae that live within corals will begin to release toxic molecules. Apart from providing the corals with food, these algae, called zooxanthellae, are what give the corals their colours.

“Consequently, the zooxanthellae are expelled from the corals’ tissue and the corals turn white,” Hyde explains. He adds that the corals can survive for several weeks if water temperature goes down in time and the zooxanthellae returns.

However, prolonged high water temperature may severely damage the corals and their ecosystems. During the El Nino and La Nina events in 1997 and 1998, mass bleaching and mortality were reported in coral reefs worldwide.

Apart from bleaching, our corals are also threatened by other human activities that could directly damage the reefs such as dynamite and cyanide fishing that happens in Sabah and tourists who carelessly touch, break or step on the corals.

Water pollution and coastal development that leads to soil erosion are also making it harder for our coral reefs to survive and flourish.

Why should we care?

Coral bleaching in Pulai Tenggol, Terengganu (pic courtesy of Lau Chai Ming)

Southeast Asia reportedly contains the largest area of coral reefs in the world. In addition, Malaysia is located in the Coral Triangle together with Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Timor-Leste and the Philippines.

In fact, the biodiversity of coral reefs in Southeast Asia is unparalleled according to the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network in their 2008 report on the status of coral reefs worldwide.

Additionally, the marine parks in Peninsular Malaysia have been receiving 400,000 to 550,000 visitors per year since 2000. Hence, the reefs also help to generate tourism revenue.

Coral reefs and their vicinity also supply over 50% of our seafood, according to Malaysia’s Marine Park Department. “Over 3,000 marine species live in our reefs, and from this breeding ground comes half of our seafood supply,” it says on its site.

The department adds that medicine for cancer treatment and heart disease have also been discovered in bioactive compounds produced in coral reefs.

Careless tourists

Despite that, many snorkelers and divers couldn’t seem to care less what they do to our corals as long as they have fun. “I’ve seen some divers leaning on the corals to take photographs,” says marine biology graduate student Lau Chai Ming from Universiti Malaya. He adds that even though he signals the divers not to touch the corals or pull them away, many don’t get the message.

Coral bleaching (pic courtesy of Reef Check Malaysia)

Responsible tourists are not supposed to touch, lean or stand on the reefs as they might break the corals that take hundreds or even thousands of years to form the structures seen today.

In May 2010, the Terengganu government said it planned to limit the annual number of tourists visiting Redang Island because the increasing number of tourists was taking a toll especially on the coral reefs.

Greenfins Malaysia was also set up in 2008 to encourage dive operators and their clients to adopt environmentally-friendly practices to help conserve coral reefs and marine life.

Alive vs dead

Shafinaz (pic courtesy of Izwar Zakri)

Reef Check Malaysia eco-diver Shafinaz Suhaimi says her most memorable experience when conducting reef surveys are the encounters with diverse marine life.

“Healthy reefs are bursting with marine life, sometimes turtles or a school of juvenile barracudas (ray-fined fish) would swim past us while we’re laying the transect line (to conduct the survey).

“I’ve also seen cuttlefish mating, and once I was almost attacked by a Titan triggerfish — they are very territorial when they are mating and nesting,” says Shafinaz, who has been conducting reef checks in Perhentian, Tioman and other islands on the east coast of the peninsula since 2007.

“The most exciting is when we see endangered species like sharks or the barramundi cod which have been severely fished out,” adds Shafinaz.

She says that the part of the survey she dislikes is when the transect line comes across dead reefs or marine life. “The survey can be done in less than an hour as there will be nothing much left to observe and record.”


JK Rowling once wrote in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: “If you want to know what a [person is] like, take a good look at how he [or she] treats his [or her] inferiors, not his [or her] equals.” Gan Pei Ling thinks the same could apply to how we treat our corals.