It’s taken decades to reach that point. Before 1969, when state authorities turned to Robert Nathan and Associates, a U.S. consultancy, to draw up a master plan for economic development, Penang Island was a 293-square-kilometer (113-square-mile) haven of steep mountain forests, ample rice paddies, and fishing villages reachable only by boat.
For most residents, though, Penang Island was no tropical paradise. Nearly one out of five working adults was jobless, and poverty was endemic in George Town, its colonial capital, according to national records.
Nathan proposed a path to prosperity: recruiting electronics manufacturers to settle on the island and export their products globally. His plan emphasized the island’s location on the Strait of Malacca, a trading route popular since the 16th century that tied George Town to Singapore and put other big Asian ports in close proximity.
As a 20th century strategy focused on stimulating the economy, Nathan’s plan yielded real dividends. The island’s population nearly doubled to 755,000, according to national estimates. Joblessness hovers in the 2 percent range.
Foreign investors poured billions of dollars into manufacturing, retail and residential development, and all the supporting port, energy, road, and water supply and wastewater treatment infrastructure. In 1960, the island’s urbanized area totaled 29.5 square kilometers (11.4 square miles), almost all of it in and immediately surrounding George Town. In 2015, the urban area had spread across 112 square kilometers (43 square miles) and replaced the mangroves, rubber plantations, rice paddies and fishing villages along the island’s northern and eastern coasts.
There are now 220,000 homes on the island, with more than 10,000 new units added annually, according to National Property Information Center. George Town’s colonial center, which dates to its founding in 1786, was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008, like Venice and Angkor Wat. The distinction helped George Town evolve into a seaside tourist mecca. The state of Penang, which includes 751 square kilometers (290 square miles) on the Malay peninsula, attracts over 6 million visitors annually, roughly half from outside Malaysia. Most of the visitors head to the island, according to Tourism Malaysia.
Nathan’s plan, though, did not anticipate the powerful ecological and social responses that runaway shoreline and hillside development would wreak in the 21st century. Traffic congestion in George Town is the worst of any Malaysian city. Air pollution is increasing. Flooding is endemic.
Nor in the years since have Penang’s civic authorities adequately heeded mounting evidence of impending catastrophes, despite a series of government-sponsored reports calling for economic and environmental sustainability.
Things came to a head late last year. Flooding caused thousands of people to be evacuated from their homes. Water tore at hillsides, opening the forest to big muddy wounds the color of dried blood. Never had Penang Island sustained such damage from storms that have become more frequent, according to meteorological records. Rain in November that measured over 400 millimeters (13 inches) in a day. The damage and deaths added fresh urgency and new recruits to Penang Island’s longest-running civic argument: Had the island’s growth become a hazard to life?
George Town is far from alone in considering the answer. The 20th century-inspired patterns of rambunctious residential, industrial and infrastructure development have run headlong into the ferocious meteorological conditions of the 21st century. Coastal cities, where 60 percent of the world’s people live, are being challenged like never before by battering storms and deadly droughts. For instance, during a two-year period that ended in 2016, Chennai, India, along the Bay of Bengal, was brutalized by a typhoon and floods that killed over 400 people, and by a drought that prompted deadly protests over water scarcity. Houston drowned in a storm. Cape Town is in the midst of a two-year drought emergency.
George Town last year joined the expanding list of cities forced by Nature to a profound reckoning. Between 2013 and mid-October 2017, according to state records, Penang recorded 119 flash floods. The annual incidence is increasing: 22 in 2013; 30 in 2016. Residents talk about a change in weather patterns for an island that once was distinguished by a mild and gentle climate but is now experiencing much more powerful storms with cyclone-force winds and deadly rain.
This story first appeared on Mongabay
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