Sustainability Starts Where We Stand

As the world’s population inches closer to the eight billion mark and the Earth’s resources fast become depleted, humanity’s future hangs in a balance. The UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals is a veritable collective effort and its success will depend on the strong will by governments – Penang’s included.

In October 2018 the Penang state government became the first state in Malaysia to sign a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) to ensure that the state’s future development is aligned with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and to develop an evaluation framework with clear performance indicators.

Penang2030: A Family-focused Green and Smart State to Inspire the Nation, launched late last year, aims to improve liveability, economy, civil participation and balanced development – in line with the SDGs.

“Penang2030 is the first state government programme in Malaysia to make this commitment to the SDGs. It is an open invitation to all members of Penang’s society to join hands to make sure it happens,” says Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow.

Each of Penang2030’s goals is affiliated with selected SDGs. “By focusing on Goal 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities – partly because Penang is one of the most urbanised states in Malaysia, but more because Goal 11 cuts across all the other SDGs – the monitoring and evaluation system will be more comprehensive,” says Chow.

Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow.

Some lifestyle changes are therefore imperative – including decreasing plastic usage and ensuring equal opportunities for both men and women. “Ultimately, it is important to ensure that one goes beyond merely a box-ticking exercise. The SDGs provide a basis for deep organisational change required for citizens to commit and participate actively in ensuring we leave a better world for future generations.”

The initial stage in the implementation of the MOU involves collaboration between the state government and UN-Habitat, the private sector, and civil society to identify the unique requirements of Penang, and to ensure their alignment with Penang2030.

“UN-Habitat has a decade of experience in setting up and implementing a monitoring system called the City Prosperity Initiative (CPI) which is based on a spatial and multi-sectoral analysis to help governments and key stakeholders make informed and evidence-based decisions. The CPI has been actively implemented in over 550 cities worldwide, and Penang will be the first city in Malaysia to adopt it,” says Chow.

He explains that the CPI is a two-level working cooperation between stakeholders. “The first, which all cities share globally, are indicators that allow for comparison across matters like basic urban services; while the second has to do with contextual information whereby the CPI establishes indicators unique to Penang’s context. It can only do the latter if there is close cooperation between all parties.”

Penang2030 is the first state government programme in Malaysia to make this commitment to the SDGs. It is an open invitation to all members of Penang’s society to join hands to make sure it happens.

In the medium term, UN-Habitat will also assist the state government with technical support for four projects under its purview, including culture-based urban regeneration in the George Town Unesco World Heritage Site under the George Town Conservation and Development Corporation; the Green Connectors Project in Penang Island under the Penang Island City Council (MBPP) and Drainage and Irrigation Department (JPS); the Sungai Perai Project under the Seberang Perai Municipal Council (MPSP) and JPS; and the Penang Digital Library under Chief Minister Incorporated (CMI).

“The main coordinating agency will be CMI. The UN-Habitat team will help these implementing agencies ensure that the projects are developed and implemented in tandem with both Penang2030 and the SDGs. A monitoring and evaluation system, catering specifically to the Penang context, will also be developed.”

In the long term, the partnership with UN-Habitat will be advantageous in building local capacity to ensure Penang is able to implement and monitor sustainable urban development, adds Chow. “More importantly, the UN-Habitat approach does not exclude rural areas but is truly inclusive, seeing the urban and rural as one human settlement continuum. This is important as prosperous cities are only possible in prosperous regions. It also considers environmental and ecological custodianship into its matrix of evaluation. This is important to ensure that development is sustainable.”

Pedestrian walkway in Bayan Lepas.

Going Green on Our Streets

Also in line with Goal 11, mobility is key to making George Town a liveable city, says Penang Island mayor Datuk Ar. Yew Tung Seang. Besides introducing the free Congestion Alleviation Transport (CAT) bus shuttle service as an alternative mode of transport, MBPP has also expanded the number and locations of the stations of its cycling initiative, LinkBike, since it started operations in December 2016.

The LinkBike initiative.

“We now have 29 stations in total. The primary centre is still in George Town, but we now have LinkBike stations at Bayan Baru, Persiaran Karpal Singh and Queensbay Mall in Bayan Lepas as well. Within Intel’s premise in the free industrial zone, two stations have also been set up to encourage more people to take part in the cycling initiative.”

MBPP has yet to introduce LinkBike within residential neighbourhoods, but first and last mile connectivity is an important focus area, says Yew. “We recently worked with Rapid Penang to enable passengers to board a Rapid bus bearing a bicycle logo with their folded bicycles; the bicycles will serve as first and last mile connectivity. And what’s more, you only need to pay for your own passenger fare; the bicycles are transported free-of-charge.”

With regards to the state’s 200km Cycling Lane Masterplan, Yew says that almost 180km have already been completed, with 39.3km serving as dedicated cycling lanes; and in the pipeline is the RM40mil “Ecodeck” – part of the state’s Green Connectors project which will see coastal parks built from Tanjung Tokong to Batu Maung. The cost of building the network of cycling paths will be borne by the MBPP, with additional funds to be sought from the Housing and Local Government Ministry.

Penang Island mayor Datuk Ar. Yew Tung Seang.

“As the local government, we strive to do our level best to provide better connectivity and facilities for cycling activities. In line with the Cleaner, Greener, Safer & Healthier Penang vision, and for the purpose of green connectivity, we have also identified back lanes stretching 9km long within the city area to be transformed into public spaces for the enjoyment of cyclists and pedestrians alike.

“Come June 30, we will also be organising the inaugural Penang International Bridge2Bridge Ride. It is the first time we’ve managed to obtain permission to use both Penang bridges for a 3,000-people cycling event. I’m happy to say that public response has been overwhelming since the start of registration.”

The pedestrian-friendly campaign, Pedestrian is King, is also ongoing, but Yew laments that respect for pedestrians is still dismal, referring to the two pedestrians who were killed in separate road accidents in 2017 and earlier this year. “Besides issuing summonses and fines, we are working to put up more signage and improving street lighting. We are also mapping out potential hotspots to put up speed tables. Pulau Tikus is obviously a very high traffic area, and to date, we’ve installed around 21 speed tables to slow down traffic before pedestrian crossings.”

The sub-campaign Pedestrian is King 2.0, introduced to complement the umbrella initiative, will focus on removing obstructions along the city’s five-foot ways. “This is to ensure that the public does not have to fight for their right to walk comfortably along the walkways.”

MPSP's One Baby, One Tree community programme.

Waste Not

Seberang Perai seeks to transform into a low carbon and smart city by reducing waste generation by 50% and increasing the recycling rate to 70%, and to plant more trees. “Seberang Perai’s recycling rate this year is 47.2%, which is the highest in the country. We are targeting to achieve 70% by 2022,” says MPSP president Datuk Rozali Mohamud.

To achieve the target, focus is trained on three fundamental areas: kitchen waste, composting and upcycling (through the use of arts and technology). “When you talk about segregation and recycling, the easiest way out is to just throw them into the garbage bin because the profits made from recycling are meagre and what’s more, the process is very tedious. Public awareness and education is, therefore, of utmost importance.

“But having said that, recycling is not something new to our community. When we were first encouraged to recycle, it was purely paper recycling. But with the engagement and innovation of each new president with the Seberang Perai public, we’ve been steadily polishing our recycling know-how.”

MPSP president Datuk Rozali Mohamud.

For his part, Rozali engages with local universities. For example, a request was put out for the public to collect a whopping 17,000 bottle caps, and students from Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris were recruited to provide the technologies and technical skills to assist the community in creating their very own 3D murals using the bottle caps.

“We also formed a strategic partnership with E-Idaman, a waste management business, through the Recycle for Life (RFL) programme. Participants are given the RFL card, a smart card similar to Touch ‘n Go. Recyclable items are brought to and weighed at the collection centres, and once recorded, a sum amount will be transferred into the card to be enjoyed via any merchant in collaboration with the RFL programme.”

Datuk Ir. Jaseni Maidinsa, the CEO of PBAPP and PBA Holdings.

Organic waste contributes 41% of the waste that goes into landfills. “But with proper management, i.e. by turning the waste into effective microorganism (EM) mud balls, they are used to treat Seberang Perai’s streams and monsoon drains,” adds Rozali.

Another initiative is to plant 50,000 trees by 2022. “In 2018 we broke the Malaysian Book of Records by planting 5,010 tecoma trees. Next year, we are planning to plant 6,000 coconut trees. We also have the One Baby, One Tree community programme; the idea is for the tree to become a ‘sibling’ to the child. Besides engaging with the community to plant more trees by organising events like this, the objective is to imbue the child with a love for nature and the environment – in a nutshell, education from birth.”

To reduce electrical consumption in Seberang Perai, LED bulbs will also gradually replace the SON bulbs of the mainland’s street lighting. “This will be carried out over the period of five years until 2022. We can save about 60% of energy consumption, which will also contribute to the reduction of carbon emissions. If we are to aim for a low carbon city, then we have to move in such a way that is sustainable.

“I would like to encourage the public to reduce waste generation, increase recycling and segregate waste at source at home so that we can achieve the state government’s vision to be a family-focused green and smart state by 2030.”

Stop the Tap!

The price of Penang’s domestic water is the cheapest in the country. In 2018 Penangites utilised 278 litres per capita per day, in contrast to the national average of 201 litres.

Goal 6 of the SDGs is Clean Water and Sanitation. In a bid to convince Penangites to reduce the rate of domestic water consumption, the Penang Water Supply Corporation (PBAPP) is zeroing in on three key initiatives, says Datuk Ir. Jaseni Maidinsa, CEO of PBAPP and PBA Holdings.

“In November 2017 we managed to obtain the state government’s approval to impose mandatory requirement for new developments to install water-saving devices (WSDs) – we are the first Malaysian state to do so. This means that PBAPP will work alongside the two local councils, MBPP and MPSP, to approve development plans and to ensure that new submissions comply with the installation of WSDs, which allows for the saving of 50-80% of water in their development projects.”

The second focus area is the price of water. “The government has announced that they want to reduce the national figure, which means that domestic consumption for every state will need to go down to 180 litres per capita per day by 2025. This is PBAPP’s target now, but the most effective way to do this is to raise the price of water because it is currently below the unit cost price.

When you talk about segregation and recycling, the easiest way out is to just throw them into the garbage bin because the profits made from recycling are meagre and what’s more, the process is very tedious. Public awareness and education is, therefore, of utmost importance.

If we can reduce the domestic consumption per capita, that means you could save on building new treatment plants since the excess water can be used instead for future supply.

“However, it must be done gradually. If we can reduce the domestic consumption per capita, that means you could save on building new treatment plants since the excess water can be used instead for future supply.”

Jaseni also talks of a new tariff setting mechanism (TSM) formulated by the National Water Services Commission (SPAN). “The mechanism is supposed to be transparent, in that one is able to determine how a new water tariff is arrived at. However, the formula was approved in 2016, prior to the change in government. The incumbent government now needs to review the TSM before deciding if it is to be implemented nationwide. Only then will PBA submit an application, using this new formula approved by the Cabinet, to derive the tariff review.”

Education forms PBAPP’s third initiative. “It is an ongoing project. We work with various NGOs, and one that we work closely with is Water Watch Penang, an NGO dedicated to educating the public on the value of water. Primary and lower secondary school students are our target; numerous water-related projects are organized to raise the consciousness of these schoolchildren. For example, students will be taken to a river to collect water samples for testing. They will also be taken to visit our treatment plants to know how much work goes into treating the water, and also to visit the catchment areas to make these students aware of the importance of their protection.”

To ensure continued water supply over the next 10 years, PBAPP will be investing RM501mil in water supply projects for Penang in the period of 2019-2021. Projects include a 1,200mm-diameter Butterworth-Penang Island Twin Submarine Pipeline – the third submarine pipeline to transport water from the mainland to the island.

“Penang’s main source of water is Muda River. It is now supplying more than 80% of water to the state. However, it cannot meet future additional demand beyond 2025 so that’s where the Sungai Perak Raw Water Transfer Scheme comes in. When developed, the scheme can ensure Penang will have enough water until 2050. We are going to do it in four stages, and each stage is able to take care of 10 years’ worth of water demand.

“We have to start moving now because the first phase must be commissioned by 2025 in order to meet the additional demand. We will have to work to sort out the business models, the land acquisition, the construction of the treatment plant and the pipelines so that by 2025, water security can be attained.”

Green City Pilot Project

In the realm of sustainable building, the Green Building Index (GBI) is one tool used to measure how corporations like Aspen Group preserve and protect the environment when carrying out development projects. “In Penang Island, the challenge lies in the fact that there is no cohesive progress geared towards creating an ecosystem of GBI-rated developments,” says Aspen Group president and group CEO Datuk M. Murly.

Penang Hill. The draft local plan included sustainability of the hill.

Conservation architect Prof. Ar. Laurence Loh.

I believe one should adopt a universally understood system as a blueprint – this means you can go to any country, be involved in any UN-Habitat-related projects, yet you’re still speaking the same language.

“But within the project itself, it is very sustainable in, for example, reducing carbon emissions. We have started looking into introducing electric car parks, and recently, we’ve also launched a car-sharing initiative with Socar. At our Tri Pinnacle project in Mount Erskine, we also have electric vehicles for residents to use on a shared basis. These are the areas where we’re trying to reduce not only carbon emissions, but the number of parking lots as well.”

On the mainland, urban planning is more clear-cut. “MPSP mandated that developments on the mainland must be sustainability-compliant, including the waste management systems. Our Vervea and Vertu Resort developments in Batu Kawan are affixed with a pneumatic waste collection system – it’s a suction system whereby waste is gathered in one centralised, airtight location to prevent any leakage for collection by garbage trucks,” says Murly.

“Green buildings do not guarantee economic benefits. You can’t market a product simply because it is environmentally very attractive,” he says, “but if it’s a feature that comes with the unit, then most people won’t mind having it. Of course, people are also cost-conscious. We want to make sure that whatever we build in Penang is accessible and affordable to the people.”

Bottom-up Advocacy

Awareness of the SDGs among the public can be further improved: “If you conduct a survey of 10,000 people across the board, I would say the findings are very negligible,” says conservation architect Prof. Ar. Laurence Loh, who is also a strong proponent of the SDGs. “I suppose it also depends on which interest groups you’re looking at, but generally speaking, not very many.

“That said, however, a lot of people have been looking at sustainability for a very long time, e.g. when the local plan for Penang Hill was drafted, it was about sustainability – except people didn’t use that word. But given the impetus today, perhaps it will become a strong movement where everybody embraces the SDGs by using the same terminology and through adopting the same set targets.”

The messages found in Penang2030 mirror the SDGs, but Loh believes that it would be better understood if they are made part of the SDG implementation processes. “I believe one should adopt a universally understood system as a blueprint – this means you can go to any country, be involved in any UN-Habitat-related projects, yet you’re still speaking the same language. Only then is one able to create a common platform that is really understood by the grassroots. And if understanding proves futile, then workshops and sessions must be brokered to get people on board and for the movement to gain traction.”

But the grassroots are equally made up of very diverse collectives of socio-economic classes, races, age groups and etc. that are politically fragmented and driven by myriad political agendas, observes Loh. “Unfortunately, within the public realm, the political sphere is where most media content is concentrated on – be this through TV, radio, social media or word-of-mouth – and unavoidably, people are bound to be affected by it.”

Nevertheless, successful working collaborations between relevant stakeholders are crucial in tracking Penang’s – and consequently Malaysia’s – progress towards the Goals.

Regina Hoo is a Broadcasting and Journalism graduate from the University of Wolverhampton.

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