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Road building threatens forests, water supplies in Kuala Lumpur area

EKVE site (banner) by Kate Mayberry

  • Construction has begun on the East Klang Valley Expressway (EKVE), part of a broader plan to create a ring road around Malaysia’s capital.
  • The road has been controversial from the start, with environmentalists and residents raising concerns about its impact on forests, wildlife, erosion and urban water supplies.
  • Activists are particularly concerned about the second phase of the project, fearing it will threaten the Klang Gates Quartz Ridge, a proposed World Heritage site.

AMPANG, Malaysia – Taman Rimba Ampang was once a peaceful retreat from the bustle of Malaysia’s capital, a place where Kuala Lumpur’s residents could paddle in the shallow waters of the river, shaded by lush jungle canopy.

Now it’s being torn apart.

A gash of orange-red mud cuts across the road that once brought paddlers and picnickers to the park, pushing its way through the forested hillside where excavators shift earth to create cuttings and embankments for the highway that is to come. By the river, the sound of the insects and birds is accompanied by the clank and drone of heavy machinery. City buses still come here. But no one gets on, or off.

“It’s sad when you give a higher priority to transportation than the forest,” said Leela Panikkar, director of Treat Every Environment Special (TrEES). “And a forest that is very important because it’s water catchment forest. It’s providing a service — actually a basic human right —the right to clean water. Now our concern is that you have this highway going through it, and we all know what happens after that… it opens up the area. It’s frightening to think of what plans they might have.”

 

The damage wrought on the recreational area is part of the first phase of the 1.55 billion Malaysian ringgit ($367 million) East Klang Valley Expressway (EKVE), a toll road that is touted as the final link in the Kuala Lumpur Outer Ring Road (KLORR) and connects the high-density suburbs in the city’s east.

The dual carriageway is being built by a unit of Ahmad Zaki Resources Bhd., a local developer that secured a 50-year agreement to operate the highway in 2013. The first phase consists of a 24-kilometer (15-mile) arc connecting the capital’s northeastern and southeastern suburbs.

The second stage is supposed to link the northeastern suburb of Ukay Perdana with the existing Middle Ring Road 2 and ultimately the Karak Highway, but the route has not been finalized. It was dropped from the initial plan because of its potential impact on the Klang Gates Quartz Ridge (officially renamed the Gombak Selangor Quartz Ridge in 2015), a 14-kilometer-long ridge that was formed 200 million years ago as the Earth’s crust buckled and magma was forced to the surface.

Taman Rimba Ampang was a popular recreational park. Now it is closed due to road construction. Photo by Kate Mayberry.

Environmental concerns

Cutting through forests where Kuala Lumpur meets the foothills of the Malay Peninsula’s mountainous spine, the road has been controversial since the start.

Environmental groups have raised concerns about the effect on the forests and the flora and fauna that they contain, while local residents worry about erosion, landslides and the impact on water supplies.

The rapid pace of construction of the first phase and renewed talk of a second phase has reawakened concerns about the environmental impact of the road.

Developer EKVE Sdn. Bhd., which was incorporated a decade ago, declined to comment to Mongabay about its plans for the project, but its managing director, Mohd Khalid Mohamed, told the local Star newspaper in August that it had submitted an alternative route for the second phase of the road to the federal government.

“For KLORR to be effective, the second phase will also have to be completed,” he was quoted as saying.

That is no great surprise to those who’ve been involved in the long campaign against it.

“At almost [every] level – federal, state and local [governments] – they have said it, the road is kind of meaningless if you don’t have Phase 2; that there should be a Phase 2 because otherwise the connection is not complete,” said Christa Hashim, director of TrEES.

The Klang Gates Dam. Photo by izwanroslan via Flickr.

At the foot of the Klang Gates Dam, it’s hard to imagine that the center of Kuala Lumpur is only half an hour away. The river here, more of a stream since it was dammed to provide water to the city in the late 1950s, meanders through a lush landscape surrounded by trees. Looming beyond it are the craggy rocks of the quartz ridge, vegetation clinging to its upper reaches.

Almost 200 meters wide, the dike – essentially a form of glass crystal – is home to at least 265 plant species, of which at least five are endemic, according to WWF. It is also thought to be home to a rare type of mountain goat known as the serow (Capriconis sumatraensis).

The forests surrounding the dam and the ridge are also crucial to the city’s water supply. The Klang Gates Dam provides water to around 80,000 homes and businesses, including many in the city center.

“It’s a unique rock formation,” said Gurmit Singh, executive director of the Centre for Environment, Technology and Development, Malaysia (CETDEM) and a veteran of Malaysia’s green movement. “There are certain species – both plants and animals, mainly birds – that can only exist there, certain endemic species.”

The Selangor state government applied for the site to be listed as national heritage in 2014 and in February this year to UNESCO as world heritage.

The ridge is “unique, not only due to its size, but also the outstanding beauty of its landscape, which comprises elongated craggy rocks in the midst of a green, tropical forest,” the statement to UNESCO said. “Three combined characteristics make the Gombak Selangor Quartz Ridge a truly unique natural treasure: its size, the fact that it is fully exposed and its pseudo-karst morphology.”

Mohd Khalid’s comments have renewed concern about the threat to the ridge, but the state government insists the road will not be allowed to be routed through the area.

“They have to avoid [the ridge] completely, or go under it,” said Elizabeth Wong, who is responsible for environmental affairs in the state. “What they told us at the end of 2014 was that they were not proceeding with phase two.”

Cleared land in the Taman Rimba area. Locals fear the EKVE will increase erosion and landslides. Photo by Kate Mayberry.

The politics of road construction

The EKVE has its roots in a 20-year-old report produced by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) to create the KLORR. At the time, Malaysia’s economy was booming and the city’s population growing rapidly as more people moved to Kuala Lumpur for work. The authorities feared gridlock and thought that building new roads would be a way to keep the traffic moving. In the years since, the road network has been expanded, but the city remains notorious for traffic jams.

In its report (pdf), JICA acknowledged the Department of the Environment’s concerns about the risk to the water catchment as the road travelled close to water intake points, as well as the potential for soil erosion, flooding and landslides. In addition, JICA noted concerns that the loss of forest would “create a chain of deterioration on the existing environment, especially flora and fauna.”

The plan to move ahead with the EKVE followed a sea change in Malaysian politics. The 2008 elections brought opposition parties to power in five of the country’s 13 states, including Selangor, the state which encircles the capital and includes the suburban areas through which the EKVE will pass. Here, the new government passed legislation requiring public hearings on any plan to de-gazette forest reserves. While state law allows forests to be cleared for infrastructure such as roads, railways and energy provision, it can only be done if the project is considered to be in the public interest and there are no alternative, and less damaging, routes.

TrEES has been fighting the road project ever since the 1990s, but the campaign accelerated once the Detailed Environmental Impact Assessment (DEIA) was done, work on the alignment began and the concession was awarded in February 2013.

The DEIA, submitted in November 2011 and eventually approved in April 2013, estimated 214.7 hectares of forest reserve in three different forest reserves would be affected by the highway construction, with the proposed road crossing 19 rivers. The report noted that flooding was a “frequent occurrence” in parts of the site and that increased sediment during construction would add to the risk of the flooding and landslides. More mud in the water also risked clogging treatment plants, threatening water supplies.

An excavator clears mud that’s built up in the river with the EKVE construction. Photo by Kate Mayberry.

The proposed road would also cut through the Selangor State Park (also known as Taman Warisan), which covers 108,000 hectares of land, skirting the eastern fringes of Kuala Lumpur northward to the state of Perak. In Malaysia’s National Physical Plan, the park is assigned the highest level of environmental value and is identified as a crucial link in the Central Forest Spine, which is supposed to connect fragmented forests and create viable habitats for wildlife. No development is supposed to be allowed in such ecologically sensitive areas, according to WWF Malaysia.

According to the DEIA, animals including tapirs, monkeys, pangolins and even tigers were living in the affected forest, with nine species categorized as “totally protected”.

“Choosing the right alignment for new roads is required to reduce erosion and also to reduce cutting and earthworks to minimize disturbance to wildlife habitats,” the report said.

The Department of the Environment rejected the DEIA twice, citing concerns about sedimentation and erosion, while four environmental NGOs joined forces in the Coalition for the Protection of the Selangor State Park to campaign against the project and mobilize local residents. A petition in 2014 got more than 16,500 signatures. A severe drought that led to rationing and prolonged water shortages around Kuala Lumpur in 2014 only added to concerns about the road’s impact on water security.

The state stresses the highway project was subject to a stringent process of examination that reduced its impact on the environment. Final approval was granted in August 2015, and construction only began after changes to the alignment – pushing the road to the fringes of the forest and moving it away from key intake points – and the imposition of a series of mitigation measures. The Department of the Environment set some 62 conditions for the road to go ahead, although none have been made fully public.

A serow (Capricornis sumatraensis), photographed here in Cambodia, is one of the species whose habitats could be affected by the EKVE. Photo by Kate Mayberry.

In a statement after the project was given the green light, WWF Malaysia criticized the inquiry as “just another process devoid of meaningful and effective public engagement”. The state government disagrees.

“Everyone had their say,” Wong said. “We went through each and every complaint. We really did take into account the objections. The original plan and what it is today – there have been a lot of revisions and changes. Ideally, of course, we don’t want anything to go through, but for the purposes of public interest – and this applies to other [projects] – we do take that into consideration and the revisions that the state proposes should mitigate or reduce the environmental impact. We see it as part of our responsibility. In Selangor we make it quite difficult; it’s not easy. It took them five years.”

The amount of forest that was de-gazetted was reduced to 106.6 hectares, and the contractor required to replace it with an equivalent amount of forest in return. EKVE has set aside 126 hectares in Hulu Langat, further east of the road, according to Wong. “If anyone chooses [to use] the forest reserve, there’s a cost to be paid,” she said.

Nevertheless, concerns remain.

In January, the National Water Services Commission named the EKVE among a number of projects affecting the supply of treated water in the Klang Valley after heavy sedimentation – thought to be caused by the construction – forced one of the city’s water treatment plans to cut production, leaving 65 housing areas without water for four days.

Retaining walls built in what was once forest. Photo by Kate Mayberry.

And then there’s the question of de-gazetting forest, how that land will eventually be used, and the precedent set.

“The state government erred in its judgement,” said Balu Perumal, head of conservation at the Malaysian Nature Society. “By de-gazetting they are taking away the right of future generations on the use of the park. They can’t gazette it again. And construction activities will just expand.”

CETDEM’s Singh said such an important decision should require the approval of the state assembly (at the moment it only needs the support of the state executive committee). He would also like to see an EIA completed before the project starts, and commissioned by an independent body rather than the developer themselves.

“The first question is why do we need the highway,” he said. “That’s the fundamental question. I strongly feel that we shouldn’t build any more highways. The more you build, the more cars and the more choked it becomes. What are we trying to achieve? These are the questions the EIA is supposed to ask, but they’re not being asked because the EIA is too late in the process.”

Wong said Selangor’s priority is public transport, but that roads will be built where necessary. She points to the recently completed bypass at Rawang, a commuter town north of Kuala Lumpur, as a way that roads can be built to mitigate the effect on the environment. The dual carriageway towers some 60 meters above the ground, a design that has helped preserve the Kanching Forest Reserve and the Hopea subalata, a tree that can be found nowhere else on Earth and is critically endangered.

The Klang River at Taman Rimba Ampang. Photo by Kate Mayberry.

At Taman Rimba Ampang, nature is reclaiming the signboards that used to welcome visitors at the park’s gate. The words have turned green in the rain and humidity, and lichen has begun to grow on the blue metal boards.

The park is a “hidden forest treasure not far from Kuala Lumpur city centre,” the sign reads. A home for “hard to find lowland forest bird species.”

Wong said the park is closed at the moment “for safety reasons” and that it will reopen, with improved amenities paid for by the project developer, once the EKVE is completed in two years’ time.  The park was popular because it was a picturesque and relaxing place to enjoy nature and the outdoors. Whether people will return to swim beneath the road viaducts as traffic thunders overhead is another question.

 

The EKVE construction site in the Taman Rimba Ampang area. Photo by Kate Mayberry.

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