Dead in the Water: Resorts, Sewage & the Underside of Malaysian Tourism

Tourism puts an island on the map, but at what cost? The corals and marine diversity that draw tourists to the islands are rapidly languishing from poor sewage management, driven by greed and a sheer lack of will to enforce rules and regulations. Despite the worsening effects of sewage pollution, the development of a centralised sewage management system on islands, or even strict enforcement has somehow stayed off the list of the government’s pivotal development plans for islands over the past two-decades.

PART 1

PART 2

PART 3

Reporting & Story:
V Sanjugtha
Avigna Krish Dayla Kumar
Adib Faiz

Editor:
Daily Dose Film

Producer:
Sheril A. Bustaman

Mentors:
R Nadeswaran
Zan Azlee

Produced by Fat Bidin Media.

This story is produced as part of KINIAcademy’s investigative journalism program.

Get the full story at FIJIAsia.com

Sewage mars picture-perfect image of islands

By: V.Sanjugtha and Avigna Krish Dyala Kumar

Drainage from resorts on Long Beach, Perhentian Kecil dischaging sullage water onto the beach

Snorkelling, diving, and swimming at the beach are favourite activities in the country’s stunning island resorts but unbeknownst to many, holidaymakers may be paddling in human excrement.

This is because, for decades, lack of proper facilities to treat sewage on island resorts mean untreated wastewater are channelled directly into the sea, Malaysiakini’s investigation into the matter on the Perhentian and Redang islands found.

The practice, although unsavoury, is largely in compliance with the Department of Environment’s (DOE) requirements.

Checks found small resort owners generally use septic tanks, of which contents are cleared of sludge and effluents before being channelled into the ocean, in compliance with the Environmental Quality Act 1974.

This is also the case for larger resorts that use their own small sewage treatment systems or individual septic tanks.

However, according to regulations, these tanks must first be registered and approved by the National Water Services Commission.

Malaysiakini’s investigations found that not all resorts obtained the required approval, indicating that wastewater channelled into the sea may not comply with the standards set by the Act.

The issue is compounded by the treatment of wastewater from domestic users, known as sullage. It is learnt that sullage is allowed to flow directly into the sea or into ponds and inland streams, ultimately polluting the sea.

Indah Water Konsortium director of operations for Terengganu and Kelantan Edlyn Surya Abu Bakar said this is because the volume of sullage is greater than effluents and the practice of releasing it into drainage systems means it will find its way to the water near the beach.

She said the correct practice is to use a marine outflow that directs the water more than a kilometre away from the beach to be released into the open sea.

However, this is not used on some islands. Even resorts with well-functioning small sewage treatment systems frequently discharge treated water directly into waters near crowded beaches, thus breaching Environmental Quality Act regulations, checks have found.

Polluted river on Perhentian Besar

When resorts allow sewage, sullage, and sludge to spew into the sea, this causes an increase in nutrient content and other pollutants in the waters. This, in turn, encourages algae bloom and results in a depletion of live coral cover (LCC), studies have found.

The LCC is a measure of the proportion of reef surface covered by live stony coral instead of sponges, algae, or other organisms, and is considered the most efficient indicator of coral reef health.

In the 2000s, the waters of Terengganu used to boast an LCC in the 50 percent range, according to a study by Reef Check, an NGO that receives an annual grant from the Department of Marine Parks (DMPM) to assess the health of reefs in Malaysia.

However, in 2020, the Perhentian Islands saw a decline of LCC to 38.13 percent while Redang Island had an LCC of 36.61 percent.

Some coral destruction in 2019 may be attributed to the Pabuk tropical storm. However, both islands have recorded a high pollution indicator of 30.88 percent and 36.61 percent respectively.

The pollution is likely caused by operations of hotels and resorts on the island, Reef Check said.

Resort development and the matter of sewage from these resorts are a murky matter, as the issue falls under the purview of various agencies at both state and federal levels.

Marine parks fall under the purview of the federal government, while issues related to water, drainage, sewage, solid waste, and other utilities are governed by the local council.

Resort development is approved by the state’s Economic Planning Unit, which also oversees tourism, planning, and development issues, while the DOE ensures compliance with the Environmental Quality Act, including the need for an environmental impact assessment if required.

Legally speaking, local councils are the last defence when it comes to sewage flowing straight to the sea, said Malaysian Bar Council’s Saha Deva Arunasalam said.

Saha, who is the deputy co-chair of the council’s environmental and climate change committee, said though the Environmental Quality Act calls for an environmental impact assessment before resort development is approved, the implementation of a proper sewage system is not a condition for approval.

The onus, he said, falls on the local authorities to ensure the resorts operate with proper systems.

Attempts made to contact the Besut District Council president about the matter on the Perhentian Islands were unsuccessful.

Instead, a council officer who spoke to Malaysiakini on condition of anonymity, said oftentimes, plans are drawn up, or issues are investigated and solutions proposed, but before they can be implemented, the officer in charge may be transferred to a different division.

“The previous officers probably knew, but most of us are new here. This will be raised at the next district meeting, then we will have a clearer picture.

“The new officer will have a new agenda, and so unless someone complains or raises the issue, it gets forgotten,” she explained.

When contacted, the DMPM said it is only responsible for issues in the waters around the islands gazetted as marine parks.

In an e-mail, the department said they monitor the waters around marine parks and provide opinions on pollution issues via the Besut District Action Committee to agencies such as the DOE for action to be taken under the relevant acts and regulations.

According to environmental impact assessments, resorts are also required to regularly submit a water quality report from their small sewage treatment systems to the DOE.

However, checks with resorts found many are not aware of this requirement.

Despite attempts to obtain clarification, at the time of writing, the DOE had not responded.

How small operators deal with sewage problem 

Over a decade ago, a popular way to deal with sewage was for resort operators to open their full septic tanks and let the tides flush them out at night, said one resort operator on condition of anonymity.

Edlyn confirmed the practice was prevalent at one point, prompting Indah Water to conduct a study on sewage pollution at the Perhentian Islands in 2005.

“In 2010, an international NGO highlighted the presence of the bacteria E-coli on Long Beach, Perhentian Kecil. 

“This led to the realisation that resorts were not just spewing sewage directly into the sea, but sullage water was being released directly into drainage systems that lead to the sea, causing high content of the E-coli bacteria in the waters,” she said.

However, more recently, a common method is to pump the sewage into the island’s hills, resort owners said.

Abdul Aziz Che Abdullah owns Mama Chalet on the white sandy beaches of Perhentian Besar Island.

He said the resort uses a system where sludge and solid waste are separated from wastewater, and effluents are pumped up the hill to seep into the ground, instead of channelled into the sea. The filtered sludge is then used as manure.

Lee Khing Kit, co-owner of Tuna Bay Resort, said the resort employs the Biorobic system, whereby effluents are 60 percent treated, complying with the Environmental Quality Act.

He said Perhentian has been gazetted as a marine park thus requiring effluents to comply with Standard A in the Act in order to release effluents into the sea.

Essentially, this means effluents must be released into retention ponds for reuse or released into the ground.

Therefore, like Mama Chalet, Tuna Bay pumps effluents from its retention pond up a hill where it is expected to seep naturally into the ground.

Calls to several resorts on Perhentian Besar and Kecil Islands verified that this method is popularly utilised on both islands.

Unfortunately, this has not helped the water quality of inland rivers on the island. A survey by the DMPM on the water quality of inland rivers and streams on both Redang and Perhentian Islands in 2017 and 2018 revealed high nitrate content.

The survey results were particularly alarming for Redang with the river running on its east coast registering a poor Water Quality Index (WQI) of 26.

On Perhentian Besar Island, the river at Teluk Dalam registered the lowest WQI at 58.4, which falls under Class III, with Class I being the best and Class V indicating a ‘dead river’.

Both rivers on Redang and Perhentian were located in areas of high resort density.

Rivers or streams on marine parks should register as Class I or a score above 92.7.

However, a DMPM spokesperson said all the rivers on Perhentian and Redang Islands recorded WQI Class III and II.

This indicates the need to address activities of releasing effluents into leach fields or ‘pumping up the hills’, the spokesperson said.

Otherwise, the bid to save the oceans and corals may end up hurting the rivers instead.

This article was written as part of the Kiniacademy Investigative Journalism program. For more on this story, watch the videos at https://fijiasia.com/2021/07/09/dead-in-the-water-resorts-sewage-the-underside-of-malaysian-tourism/

Illegal resorts on Malaysia’s islands endanger marine life

By: V.Sanjugtha & Avigna Krish Dyala Kumar 

A river on Perhentian Besar visibly polluted by sewage and sullage water from nearby resorts

With around a million tourists frolicking on Malaysian beaches every year, unlicensed resorts are a money-spinner for financially challenged villagers who depend on tourism for a livelihood.

However, an investigation found that villagers who convert their homes into chalets and homestays to cater to both foreign and local tourists are causing more damage to the islands than they know.

It was found that much of the sewage pollution from island resorts can be traced to unlicensed ones. Many of these resorts were also built without adherence to fire and safety laws, have improper sewage systems and cause other issues like mosquito breeding due to clogged drains.

Observers who spoke to Malaysiakini also claim loose enforcement, with some alleging that enforcing officers have vested interests in the local businesses.

50 licensed, many more in operation

One of Malaysia’s most popular island destinations is the Perhentian Islands, which falls under the Besut District Council of Terengganu.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a council officer with knowledge of the matter admitted that many resorts on the Perhentian Islands are unlicensed.

“We have done numerous raids and issued compounds, but they ignore it and continue to operate,” she revealed.

The officer said these resorts do attempt to apply for licences through the Terengganu State Economic Planning Unit, but are often rejected due to overcrowding, especially within the local village, Kampung Pasir Hantu.

Nevertheless, seeing the revenue potential, these operators carry on with their plans without registering themselves as a resort with the district council or the state’s tourism board.

When contacted, the state’s tourism board similarly said there are about 50 official resorts on the Perhentian Islands but there are many more that are unregistered with the board.

A study looking into the capacity limits of accommodation on the Terengganu islands by PLANMalaysia Terengganu in 2018 revealed that most tourist areas in Perhentian, Redang, Lang Tengah, Kapas and Tenggol Islands were operating in excess capacity.

The study also revealed that the number of rooms available on almost all the areas investigated, such as Teluk Aur, Teluk Keke, Teluk Pauh and Long Beach in Perhentian and Redang, had exceeded the real carrying capacity standards for development per acre.

According to a spokesperson from PLANMalaysia Terengganu, the excessive loading on the islands could lead to serious ecological damage.

He said although the corals in these areas were categorised as in a good state, it was still in danger of “uncontrolled, excessive physical development”.

Sullage or grey water from resort operations flows on the beach and eventually into the sea. A foul smell emanates, indicating pollution and the presence of contaminants is dangerous to coral reefs.

Beach no longer visible

Indah Water Konsortium’s Head of Operations in Kelantan and Terengganu, Edlyn Surya Abu Bakar, pointed out that in certain locations, such as Kampung Salang and Kampung Tekek on Tioman Island, development had become so saturated that “the beach is barely visible”.

Several years back, the overcrowding disrupted water supply as demand far exceeded the supply from the local water source, she said.

On Tioman Island, fresh water is obtained from the island’s natural water source, unlike the Perhentian Islands, where water is supplied via pipes from the mainland.

During Edlyn’s site visit to Kampung Pasir Hantu on Perhentian Kecil Island, she found stagnated water due to clogged drainage systems that were not designed for the excess capacity.

She noted that many of the local villagers had converted their homes into multiple storey complexes because they could see the hefty gains from tourism, largely from foreign backpackers. However, the septic tanks and drainage systems were not designed to accommodate the increased usage.

“The sewage and sludge are overflowing from the septic tanks, which were not designed for this kind of capacity.

“It is contributing to clogging of the drainage systems, where kitchen water, rainwater and any form of grey water from washing-up is also flowing into the same drainage, and eventually into the sea,” she said.

Edlyn said the sewage system, or lack thereof, violates regulations as all sullage and sewage water must be directed into the sea via marine overflow pipes, that extend at least one to two kilometres away from the beach.

Deputy Co-Chair of the Environmental and Climate Change Committee of the Malaysian Bar Council, Saha Deva Arunasalam, said local authorities should immediately shut down the operations of these unlicensed premises.

“Marine park fees are being collected, so some responsibility must be accorded to ensure these premises are properly regulated, licensed and follow strict guidelines as stipulated in the Local Authorities Guidelines,” he said.

He said local villagers may also respond by demanding the local authorities build a sewage treatment plant to deal with the growing need to deal with sewage on the island.

But this is untenable for the state, as the resorts are unlicensed and resources cannot be allocated to them as a result, he said.

Sewage plant plans delayed

Building a sewage treatment plant on key islands, namely Tioman, Redang and Perhentian has been an issue of contention for over a decade as various government agencies tussle over its relevance.

Edlyn said IWK had presented a proposal for a regional sewage plan to obtain the budget under the 10th Malaysia Plan (2011-2015) for the Redang and Perhentian Islands. The proposal included design, capacity details, and location strategy.

“What I heard is that it is pending the approval of the budget. It has been brought forward to the 11th and now the 12th Malaysia Plan.

“I was informed that it will be done, but with some changes to the design and most likely incorporating green technology so the treated water can be reused, instead of released into the sea,” said Edlyn, who is also in the planning division of IWK Pahang, Kelantan and Terengganu.

Under the 12th Malaysia Plan, the Sewerage Master Plan under the 12th Malaysia Plan will be carried out by the Sewage Services Department (JPP) under the Environment and Water Ministry.

JPP Development Management Division director Alias Mohammed said the establishment of a treatment plant on Redang and Perhentian Islands was still at the planning stage.

“We are looking at options to find a proper system or find suitable methods to solve the problem. We need to assess the condition at the islands before deciding on a suitable system to be built there,” he said.

Alias declined to provide a timeline for completion. It is understood that much of the delay is budgetary in nature.

It is learnt that approximately RM117 million was set aside for this development in the 10th Malaysia Plan, but budgetary constraints meant it was carried forward to the 11th Malaysia Plan and now raised again under the 12th Malaysia Plan.

For Tioman Island, the plans to develop a plant had been proposed during budget planning for the 9th Malaysia Plan, but it has yet to be implemented.

“This (plan for a sewerage plant) comes up every time there is an issue, then it dies down and gets forgotten,” Edlyn said.

Loopholes in the law

The urgent need to monitor pollutants on these islands grows as the small resorts grow in size and number, Universiti Islam Antarabangsa expert in biotechnology engineering, Zaki Zainuddin said.

“If it is a lagoon for instance, is there pure dispersion? If the area is in excess capacity, there is bound to be accumulation of nutrients that cannot be flushed out effectively.

“This leads to nutrient loading which causes algal bloom that can destroy corals,” he pointed out.

Zaki said loopholes in sewage regulations mean that bacteria levels in sewage were not monitored under the Environmental Quality Act 1974.

“This is an important aspect, especially in a recreational area. The justification is that the bacteria will die off when released into the environment, but there is a contention to this assumption,” he said.

Saha Deva, who is also the vice-president of environment group Peka Malaysia, agreed that laws need to be enhanced to incorporate environmental sustainability concerns.

“Firstly, at present the laws covering water quality issues, for instance, are very fragmented. There are many different laws for different issues, under different ministries.

“There is also the issue of the states’ authority on land matters, which holds above federal government policies,” he said.

Saha Deva says a constitutional amendment is very much needed to make sure the environment is clearly stipulated and as a right that is protected under the constitution.

“Right now it is not.”

In the absence, lawsuits on environmental protection thus far have relied on case laws to “bring the environment into the right of life”.

“This is the basis of the suits that we can bring against authorities to say that we are entitled to protection of the environment,” he explains.

He said a constitutional amendment will allow better protection of the environment, as current laws are insufficient to ensure the sustainability of the environment, a rapidly depleting resource.

  

This article was written as part of the Kiniacademy Investigative Journalism program. For more on this story, watch the videos at https://fijiasia.com/2021/07/09/dead-in-the-water-resorts-sewage-the-underside-of-malaysian-tourism/

Your Instagrammable photos could kill the turtles

By: V. Sanjugtha and Avigna Krish Dyala Kumar

Partially hidden sewage pipe on the beach in Teluk Dalam, Perhentian Besar

If any good has come of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that the halt in human movement has allowed nature to heal and rejuvenate. The absence of tourists and pollution from human activity has allowed nature to heal itself. 

A key issue from tourism is during peak season, popular spots like Turtle Bay in Redang Island and Teluk Pauh in Perhentian Island receive over 500 snorkelers a day, above its carrying capacity. To top it off, tourists manhandle turtles, touch the fish and poke at corals. It’s akin to 500 strangers invading your home, watching, poking and probing at you while you go about your daily routine.  

Every year, a handful of turtles wash ashore the beaches of Malaysia, their shells displaying damage consistent with cuts from motor propeller blades of boats. Last year, a turtle was spotted with a severely damaged shell in the vicinity of Teluk Pauh, Perhentian Besar Island. Onlookers alerted the Marine Park authorities located a short distance away but they did not show up. Rescue missions by divers from the dive centres nearby failed to trap the turtle. The issue was raised with the Marine Park, prompting responses ranging from ‘lack of personnel’, ‘unavailability of boats’, to ‘awaiting directive from higher authority to act’. In the absence of action from the relevant government agency, protecting marine life lies in our hands. 

Last year, after the Movement Control Order was lifted, tourists flocked to the islands and again, photos began to emerge on Social Media of excited tourists grabbing onto turtles, feeding fish or touching corals. 

According to Ocean Quest Global Founder and Marine Scientist, Anuar Abdullah, tourists are repeatedly told not to touch marine life as it stresses the animals, resulting in disorientation and sometimes, death. Many marine species have an anti-bacterial layer, a form of mucus over their body to protect themselves from parasites. Touching this layer could compromise it and thus, leaves the sea creature vulnerable to infections. Furthermore, these creatures are delicate and fragile and touching them could endanger their tiny structures. Some sea creatures have defence mechanisms to protect themselves but it comes with a price. Sea cucumbers for instance expel their intestines when disturbed, but this could be dangerous to them if done repeatedly. Some do not hesitate to use their venom, a defence mechanism when touched, that can be fatal to us.

The bucks stops with you

Tourist guides at most islands are known to drag turtles to the surface for the snorkelers viewing and petting. A spokesperson with the Department of Marine Park (DOMP) said they were aware of these actions and had conducted numerous talks and workshops to educate the guides. Nevertheless, they claimed that it was difficult to monitor the guides, especially those who bring in day-trippers to the islands. 

When asked, a spokesperson from DOMP was vague on actions taken against errant tourist guides and tour operators. In a written response, the department, which falls under the Department of Fisheries (DOF) said it had ‘asked the government to consider a more sustainable and environmentally friendly tourism model, moving away from the mass tourism’ that has led to overtourism in Marine Parks. The department said there is an opportunity to rebuild the Marine Protected Areas to be better after the pandemic in line with tourism trends seeking good practices, low density and high value destinations. 

However, a source revealed that Pahang state government was planning to pursue the degazettement of Tioman Island as a Marine Park, which will then smoothen the path for the controversial construction of an international airport on the island. It is believed the reason cited for pursuing the degazettement is the need to ‘elevate the economic situation of the locals.’ 

This essentially means more tourists will flock to the area contradicting DOMP’s vision for a sustainable tourism model. If Tioman Island is degazetted, it will lose its Marine Protected Areas, endanger the coral reefs and marine life, especially the turtles. 

Again, in the absence of strict enforcement and penalties, we need to be more woke and proactive. Demand must stop. Blame should also be extended to the tourists who only seek guides who guarantee turtle sighting. In the name of repeat customers looking for Instagrammable photos, the guides oblige. It is pertinent for tourists to understand the repercussions of their actions, and stop demanding to see a turtle. 

Andy Lua, who has been a dive instructor in Perhentian Besar Island for over a decade strictly prohibits his divers from touching corals during their dives. 

Some divers accidentally bump into the corals when their buoyancy control is poor. They are encouraged to go through a refresher dive, and buoyancy clinic. 

“It’s a win-win. This protects the coral reefs and enhances the diver’s ability underwater,” he explained. 

Fishing in Marine Park

According to the Fisheries Act 1985, (Act 317) Part IX Marine Parks and Marine Reserves, an area within 2 nautical miles of the Marine Parks are Marine Protected Areas (MPA) and are designated as no-take zones, prohibiting fishing activities.  Nevertheless, it persists. Again, the marine fraternity lament the lack of action from Marine Park enforcement team as despite numerous complaints, little if any action has been taken. The Marine Park spokesperson points to a lack of enforcement officers. 

“We have limited resources and sometimes by the time we reach the location, they [illegal fishermen] are gone,” he pointed out. 

The recent lockdowns under the MCO 3.0 has caused an increase in reports of illegal fishing. Marine Park authorities were able to seize over 15 steel cages and fish traps in the waters of Lang Tengah Island and Perhentian Island in just one raid. According to Marine Park’s spokesperson, most of the fish trapped were coral fish. He said first time offenders were only fined RM500. 

“We go through a lot to seize these cages. Our divers sometimes have to endure rough seas and tough conditions and all for a small fine of RM500. Sometimes the perpetrators are absent, we can only release the fish and seize the equipment,” he explained. 

It is the economic push that drives illegal fishing in Marine Parks and perpetrators are predominantly the islands’ villagers. Perhaps enforcement is not the only way out, but utilising the untapped government grants and budgets to empower the villagers to become the guardians of the marine ecology, we will garner better results than stretching the limited enforcement team with minimal results. Creative solutions to vary and increase the income of villagers through sustainable means are aplenty, unfortunately, little is done to explore it. 

This article was written as part of the Kiniacademy Investigative Journalism program. For more on this story, watch the videos at https://fijiasia.com/2021/07/09/dead-in-the-water-resorts-sewage-the-underside-of-malaysian-tourism/

Enforcement, the Malaysian way 

By: V.Sanjugtha and Avigna Krish Dyala Kumar

A craving for Malaysian-style corn in a cup, drenched with condensed milk and swimming in cholesterol-laden Planta margarine had me literally chasing the corn-man down the road. Note though, he was not running away from his customers, but from municipal council enforcement officers. 

An overused cliché to quote but seriously, aren’t the enforcement guys on their kapchai motorbikes missing the forest for the trees? 

In a pandemic, as the B40 struggle to eke out a living, should the main concern be whether they have license to operate? That is the problem with Malaysian-style enforcement – it’s all muscles but merely a performance fulfillment, meanwhile the true problem, remains under the plush Turkish carpet.  

While we are locked up and lucked out on holiday options, the islands of Malaysia are busy healing themselves from our callous and careless ways. One study found that Malaysia’s islands produce 400 tonnes of solid waste a day. Of these, 60% were collected and disposed at landfills, 35% burned and 5% dumped into the sea. Taking it a little further, what happens to our bodily waste flushed down the toilet? Seen an Indah Water logo near any of the resorts you’ve been to? 

Poor sewage treatment is affecting the marine ecology at islands, but it is often kept in the back burner, an untouched problem. Instead, enforcement officers from the various government agencies fulfil their monthly, quarterly or annual Key Performance Index (KPI) by sniffing out illegal immigrant workers at resorts, establishments serving alcohol without license, checking up on resort license renewals, and whether the kitchen staff have had their typhoid jabs. They have found their trees, but the forest misses their mark. 

So, no one checks if the resort’s septic tank capacity matches its room capacity. No one checks if the resort is maintaining its sewage treatment system in compliance with the regulations, as ‘islands are too far off and a lack of manpower and budget does not justify a site visit’ for this. 

Interestingly however, funds have been allocated by the government for marine conservation under the Department of Fisheries. However, these funds are yet to be tapped into. Given that the untreated sewage from resorts end up contaminating the waters around the islands which are predominantly marine parks, funds can be obtained from this source to ensure that proper sewage facilities are employed. 

A proposal to set up a centralised sewage treatment plant on Tioman Island under the 9th Malaysia Plan as far back as 2006 has yet to materialise due to budgetary constraints, while a similar proposal, for Perhentian and Redang Islands proposed under the 10th Malaysia Plan circa 2011 for RM117 million, has been brought forward to the current 12th Malaysia Plan (12MP), also due to budget constraints. 

These proposals were raised by Indah Water Konsortium via the National Water Services Commission (SPAN). It remains unclear if the plant will even be constructed under the 12MP as the Sewage Services Department, in charge of executing the plan said it does not have a timeline for commencement, but the project is likely to begin before 2025, the end of the 12MP period. 

District, state, federal and across ministries – the demarcation of responsibilities in managing sewage, solid waste, and even licence to operate resorts on islands overlaps, fades and blurs as each set their own goals in silos and chase respective KPIs. Statistics, researches and analysis are commissioned but appear to be filed and tucked away for ‘record purposes’ without drawing conclusion on key factors such as carrying capacity and changes in Marine Water Quality. Interestingly, when an officer with a local authority in Terengganu was asked who should monitor the sewage on islands, he intrepidly replied, “We actually do not know. Because most of us are new here, but we are trying to find out.” 

Is this the age-old government-officer’s ‘tidak apa’ attitude at play, or a form of corrupt protectionist? Land on islands are largely owned by powerful individuals, or influential locals with voting power and financial muscle, believed to be a key factor deterring enforcement actions. 

However, when something foul emanates, stirring the media attention, government departments, be it DOE, local council or the state Economic Planning Unit, phone calls and e-mails are brushed aside with promises of responses on a tomorrow that is never to come. Adapting the Ostrich Effect, the government agencies and departments believe that when answers are not provided, the problem will cease to exist. 

It has been over two decades since the sewage pollution problem at Perhentian and Redang Islands were raised and garnered media attention. For the past 14 years, Reef Check Malaysia, who receives an annual grant from the Department of Marine Park to monitor and record the local ecosystems, has highlighted its concerns on the deteriorating state of live corals and loss of fish stock due to suspected illegal fishing. 

The reports are almost a cut and paste every year, indicating action from the authorities clearly has not been taken. Running a few courses and conducting town halls, seminars and talks do not constitute action. Hosting foreign marine experts who provide ‘consulting’ services and expensive ‘expert’ advice does not make the problem go away. Regulations must be enforced and resorts must take accountability for their operations. 

This article was written as part of the Kiniacademy Investigative Journalism program. For more on this story, watch the videos at https://fijiasia.com/2021/07/09/dead-in-the-water-resorts-sewage-the-underside-of-malaysian-tourism/

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