Tuesday September 11, 2012
Sprucing up Perhentian
By MENG YEW CHOONG
The waste that comes with growing tourist and villager numbers in Pulau Perhentian demands attention.
AT the height of the tourist season, Terengganu’s Perhentian Islands (consisting of Pulau Perhentian Besar and Pulau Perhentian Kecil) generate close to 10 tonnes of trash each day. Thankfully, this is not a constant amount as it varies greatly according to tourist arrivals – the amount of waste can go down by half or more during the off-peak season, such as the period from October to March.
A delay on the part of the Besut District Council in awarding the tender for public cleansing on the islands early this year resulted in rubbish piling up at the seafront. The problem was finally sorted out in April and since then, the daily collection has been largely problem-free.
In fact, rubbish collection has actually improved over the past three years, when the council decided to let private contractors do the job. The efforts of the Marine Parks Department also made a huge difference, as it has banned the floating platform system of disposal used some years ago. Under this system, bagged refuse from resorts were piled on a pontoon anchored in deep waters to be collected by a boat. However, when the sea gets rough, the bags of trash end up in the sea.
Now, small boats pick up the trash from the seafront of each resort and transfer it to a larger boat, which then drops it off at Kuala Besut, where tourists normally start their journey to the islands. The waste collection service is now handled by Karszard Resources.
Shrink those heaps
Clearly, more can be done to reduce the amount of waste transported to the mainland for landfilling – which is why open burning of rubbish can still be seen on the island, such as at the seafront areas of the kampung. “The contractor has requested that we cut down the volume of waste loaded onto the boats,” said cleaner Tengku Hasmizam Tengku Yahya, 31. “We do this by excluding garden waste, cardboard, used packaging and paper waste when we fill up the plastic garbage bags. If we include all these, there will not be enough bags to go around.”
It is not only garden and paper wastes which are burned. Low quality plastics, including a plastic chair, also get the fiery treatment. However, the villagers do remove valuable recyclables such as aluminium cans and PET (polyethylene terephthalate) beverage bottles as there is demand from a collector. The only problem is that the collector comes infrequently and prefers the more valuable aluminium scraps. So when his small boat is fully loaded with aluminium waste, the plastics are rejected.
“Logistics is everything when it comes to recycling,” said one cleaner, an elderly lady. “I know it is a waste to burn the cardboard boxes but if we keep them, no one is going to collect them as the transportation fee by boat is too prohibitive. Even the plastic scraps take quite a while before they get collected.”
Though satisfied with the quality of service from the waste contractor, resort operators have gripes about the charges. Perhentian Island Resort, the largest resort on the island with 106 rooms, pays the council close to RM3,600 each month. The Perhentian Tunabay Island Resort forks out around RM900. The fees are based on the number of rooms. Shops also pay a fee. Only the villagers are exempted from any payment. And because the fees are not tied to the amount that is collected, the resort operators have no incentive to cut down on waste generation.
While the garbage problem appears to be under control now, Perhentian is facing a threat from the discharge of untreated or under-treated sewage, especially from the village and small resorts.
Avid diver Lee Hwok Lok sees signs of stress on the marine life. “The house reefs, which are the patches of corals fronting each resort, are mostly dead.” The environmental consultant says the corals could have died from trampling by tourists but some patches of the seabed are covered with a green algae layer, which suggests sewage pollution.
“Land clearing or development is another reason for the smothering of corals by silt. I once saw how rainwater gushed through a resort grounds and carried a huge load of silt and sand into the sea. The resort could have done more to landscape its property properly, or put in more remedial measures,” he adds.
Data from Reef Check Malaysia, which relies on volunteers to conduct annual surveys of the country’s coral reefs, show sewage pollution to be a significant problem at Perhentian.
“There is a troubling decline in the condition of coral reefs around the islands, and an emerging problem is that of algae growth. Given the remote location of the islands, this decline can largely be attributed to the growing tourism industry there,” says the group’s general manager, Julian Hyde.
Looking at sewage
Reef Check and the Perhentian Island Business Operators Association (membership is voluntary) earlier this year got Indah Water Konsortium (IWK) to survey the handling of sewage in the village and the resorts. The national sewerage company is studying the feasibility of introducing some form of wastewater treatment infrastructure there.
However, the geographical feature of the islands, which are separated by a deep 1.3km channel, prevents the construction of a centralised sewage treatment plant. Reef Check suggests that a more cost-effective measure would be for every resort to improve its own sewage treatment facility. The bigger operators like Perhentian Island Resort and Tunabay Resort already have comprehensive sewage treatment plants in place. In the latter’s aerobic enclosed tank system, wastewater from 16 new chalets is captured and oxygen is pumped through so that the breakdown of organic matter is complete, resulting in clean water and the absence of odour. The system costs about RM75,000 so even if all the 40 resorts at Perhentian put up a similar system, the cost would only come up to RM3mil.
Reef Check says another option is for the resorts to continue using septic tanks, but to step up the monitoring and enforcement regime. Currently, some resorts desludge their septic tanks once a year, during the monsoon-enforced shutdown period. With ample land at its disposal, Perhentian Island Resort buries the sludge in a huge pit. Tunabay bags up the sludge for disposal on the mainland. For small resorts with only a few rooms, it is not known what their maintenance regime is like. Reef Check suggests that IWK goes to the islands once a year with a special barge to empty all the septic tanks.
“The barge could also cover all the islands in the East Coast, in0cluding Redang and Tioman. (The estimated cost of) RM2mil may seem like a lot of money but the Government should see that it’s actually a small investment to protect the Perhentian tourism market which is worth some RM100mil annually,” says Hyde.
The three months of closure during the monsoon season is currently masking sewage pollution by allowing dilution and cleansing to somewhat take care of the excessive nutrients and bacteria. For tour operators who depend on the allure of the beach and sea, there is no time to waste.
Alex Lee who owns travel agency Ping Anchorage, says the authorities must step in to resolve the problem posed by sewage pollution. “We know that small resort operators cannot afford to invest in proper sewage management systems but this is a major issue that we have to solve fast as the E. coli level is actually very high, for both the Perhentian and Redang islands.”
Wanted: Kitchen scraps