By Puan Sri Shariffa Sabrina Syed Akil

It has been almost five years since construction on the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) began and what we have learnt since August 2017 is not reassuring. While the monetary cost of the project is well known, at just over RM 50 billion, it is the environmental cost that Malaysia will keep paying for decades to come.

The ECRL was criticised relentlessly by the then opposition Pakatan Harapan (PH), which went on to win the general elections in May 2018. With much fanfare, the ECRL and other controversial mega projects were put on hold. The people rejoiced as not only money but the environment would also be spared from severe disruptions.

But somehow the project was renegotiated with a lower financial cost and would be allowed to proceed. After all the noise it seemed the reality was that Malaysia would be unable to back out of the ECRL and many saw this as a lack of political will. This has continued even more so under the governments that succeeded PH.

While some will call this a national embarrassment, to me it is a national tragedy, that we seem helpless in the face of this expensive and highly disruptive mega project, whose benefits, if any, will be far outweighed by the cost to the people, environment and country.

Whatever the factors that have allowed this mega project to continue, let us consider what it will do to our precious natural heritage, no in one or two or three but four states, cutting through vital rivers and mandating the clearing of sections of forest reserves all for a project whose economic benefits have always been in doubt.

The environmentally sensitive areas where the ECRL will pass through, provide vital services to the nation including protecting 90 percent of Malaysia's water supply, aiding in local climate control, flood mitigation as well as protecting vast areas of irreplaceable biodiversity.

When we have less than 18 percent of natural forest left (that figure combines both East and West Malaysia), is it wise to have embarked on this project which will degrade the Central Forest Spine (CFS), a conservation initiative designed to connect the country’s eight major forest complexes, in the heart of Peninsula Malaysia. Remember the masses of felled trees that washed up during the floods earlier this year. How long do you think our forests will last at this rate?

ECRL will also fragment already fragmented natural habitats even further. This means further pressure on the rapidly dwindling number of tigers, tapirs, elephants and other endangered wildlife. Just this year alone we have had so many incidents of human-animal conflict as wildlife is being forced out of their habitats into human settlements. This will only get worse as the construction and later the operation of the ECRL begins.

Noise, vibrations and all the other problems that come with such a mega project will certainly affect animals, but let us not forget that it will pass through or at least nearby human settlements including Orang Asal settlements.

And let us not forget the impact the ECRL will have on the security of our water supplies because it will pass over or under several key waterways that are critical for the supply of water for public use. We can expect the construction to add to sedimentation, pollution and other issues that will have a long term impact.

While an independent study is needed to investigate the links between the ECRL, severe flooding, deforestation, water pollution and loss of biodiversity to arrive at any solid conclusion, even the layman can tell that these events are not unconnected. The only question is to what degree.

We also have to consider the implications of the ECRL on our national sovereignty. It is ironic that the main foreign contractor has been sanctioned internationally for its involvement in the militarisation of the South China Sea, besides being accused of corruption and environmentally destructive practices.

When we step back and look at the overall picture, can we honestly tell ourselves that Malaysia is making progress on implementing a green agenda and sustainable development goals by 2030 or are we instead slipping further and further from a future that we can be proud of?

*Puan Sri Shariffa Sabrina Syed Akil is immediate past President of Association for the Protection of Natural Heritage of Malaysia (PEKA)*