The opening of a huge shrimp farm scheme in Setiu, Terengganu, threatens traditional livelihoods and wild habitats.
SETIU is set to be transformed into the country’s aquaculture showcase, courtesy of the RM60bil second economic stimulus package announced last March.
A mere 45-minute drive from Kuala Terengganu, it boasts a mesmerising rural landscape.
Facing the South China Sea are swaying coconut palms and sandy beaches. Not far into the hinterland, nipah and nibong palms line the banks of several rivers that run through the district. These bodies of water have sustained a unique fishery for generations in this district that is listed as the second poorest in the country.
Fishermen in several villages scattered throughout the Penarik area switch their fishing grounds between the sea and the rivers depending on the monsoon seasons as well as throughout the year. They could be catching fish in the sea in the morning and netting prawns from the streams in the evening.
The area also boasts possibly the country’s largest gelam (Melaleuca cajuputi) forest – a coastal heath forest – that conservationists say is little-documented but represents a vital ecosystem that should be conserved.
In fact, the area encompasses an array of inter-connected ecosystems that includes a brackish water lagoon, a riverine complex comprising the Setiu, Caluk, Bari and Merang rivers, and several wetland habitats such as riparian forest, peat swamp forest, freshwater swamp forest, gelam forest, mangroves and seagrass beds.
The diverse natural features of Setiu have been recognised in the Eastern Corridor Economic Region Master Plan for eco-tourism potential.
However, a large tract of the gelam forest has been felled to make way for Phase One of the 1,000ha Integrated Shrimp Aquaculture Park (i-SHARP). The Detailed Environmental Impact Assessment (DEIA) prepared by Blue Archipelago Bhd (BAB) was approved by the Department of Environment (DOE) in early September. The subsidiary of Khazanah Holdings, a government-linked company, has received RM10bil under the total RM60bil stimulus package to boost the economy.
Conservationists are perplexed by the approval of the project as it is sited on an Environmentally Sensitive Area Rank One according to the National Physical Plan, where only low impact educational and eco-tourism activities are permitted.
Apart from the loss of the gelam forest, the scheme to raise black tiger prawn and white-leg shrimp is sited along Sungai Caluk which is within the habitat of the river terrapin (Batagur affinis) and painted terrapin (Batagur borneoensis), two of the world’s top 25 most endangered freshwater turtles.
As the project intends to draw sea water through a tunnel for its 500 ponds, critics fear that the discharge of highly saline effluent into the river will cause a chain reaction that will affect the river ecology and its flora and fauna.
BAB in an e-mail response to StarTwo, argues that Sungai Caluk is not a freshwater river as it is connected to the sea via Kuala Merang and Kuala Setiu.
“As such, the salinity of the river can rise as high as 4.45 parts per thousand (ppt). Our water quality modelling shows that our water discharge will have minimal impact to the river system.
“However, to be doubly sure of our data, we are working closely with the DOE to monitor the water quality of the river for a period of 12 months so that real and accurate data can be used to remodel the impact of our water discharge. Should the result using the new data show a significant impact, we will not hesitate to further add mitigation measures to reduce the impact to the river system,” it said.
Conservationists have suggested an additional tunnel to discharge the effluent back to the sea. BAB, which is investing RM200mil in i-SHARP, did not respond to a question on why it was not taking up the suggestion.
BAB was incorporated in 2007 to spearhead the development of shrimp farming and its first project was a joint-venture with the Kedah state government to take over the faltering 360ha Kerpan aquaculture project. Kerpan was a black mark in the country’s aquaculture industy. Fertile rice farms were bulldozed to make way for the project in the mid-1990s. The Government had to deploy anti-riot police to quash the rural protestors.
World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) questions the accuracy of the DEIA, saying that its data were from samples collected from a day’s observation.
According to the latest data from the Department of Irrigation and Drainage (DID) which the DEIA consultants referred to, the salinity reading is well below 1ppt at all its monitoring stations.
WWF estimates that the project could discharge up to an equivalent of 50,000kg of salt into the river every hour when it is fully operational in 2011.
“It is doubtful that Sungai Caluk will have the capacity to dilute such a high concentration of salt, especially during the dry season when the river flow and volume are low. This will have a devastating impact on the river ecosystem and the river terrapins,” warns its executive director Dr Dionysius Sharma.
Another questionable aspect of river water modelling in the DEIA is the flow rate data. DID’s data during the monsoon in November and December last year was below 50 cu/m per second while those presented by the consultant was 55 cu/m per second outside the monsoon season. The flow rate will determine the dilution ability of the river.
Sharma reveals that as a DEIA review panel member, WWF has highlighted gaps and raised questions on the water quality modelling study in the DEIA and is of the opinion that the study did not accurately represent the dilution capacity of Sungai Caluk during the wet and dry periods.
“There was no official response to the questions and issues we raised on the DEIA,” says Sharma.
BAB, meanwhile, maintains that the DEIA is a result of extensive consultation involving 12 government state agencies, four federal agencies, 727 households in seven villages and non-governmental organisations such as WWF and Wetlands International. It says feedback from these parties have been incorporated into the report. It expresses willingness to address concerns about the potential environmental impact of i-SHARP.
Although the DEIA concluded that the project location does not affect any conservation plans, the Setiu lagoon as well as parts of the gelam forests are to be incorporated into the proposed Setiu State Park.
As the proposed park is reflected in the Setiu Local Plan, a document gazetted in February 2007, Sharma questions the legality surrounding the project approval by the state as well as the DEIA approval which were given without amendments to the Local Plan. He points out that under the Town and Country Planning Act 1976, proposed amendments to land use should go through a public review.
To this, BAB says the state executive committee has approved the rezoning of the area and it has also obtained the planning permission for the project and that the state planning authority will update the Local Plan accordingly.
It also says that it practises zero-burning and mulch the biomass from land-clearing at the site. However, charred logs seen at the site in November indicated that fire had been used to clear debris.