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  The New Straits Times, 6 Feb 05
There's still hope for Port Dickson
by Elizabeth John and P. Sharmini

The sad tale of neglect and disregard for the environment has many Klang Valley holiday-makers wondering about Port Dickson. So many of us have fond memories of sun-kissed days on the beach in Port Dickson. Many may still have that old faded photographs of family members showing off the hottest in beachwear on Port Dicksonís once pristine coast.

However, over the years and millions of happy visitors later, the pleasant memories have given way to an unfortunate reality, as readersí letters throughout 2004 testify. They wrote to this newspaper complaining of uncollected rubbish, a lack of attention to beachfront conservation, pollution, illegal harvesting of corals, traffic jams and poor development planning in the resort town. In complete despair, one writer even asked whether there was any hope left for Port Dickson.

If hope for the environment is the concern, then Port Dicksonís health report card is full of worrying red marks.

The general ecology of Port Dickson is a mixed bag, says Professor Dr Mohd Ibrahim Mohd, a marine scientist with Universiti Putra Malaysia and a retired sea captain. Port Dickson is known for the direct flow of sewage into the sea and near these outfalls, the ecology is not good. The level of the E.coli bacteria sometimes surpasses permitted standards, Ibrahim says.

Coral reefs that used to dot Port Dicksonís waters arenít in the pink of health either, he adds, pointing to sedimentation from beachfront development as the culprit. The corals today are nothing like the nursery and playground of schools of multi-coloured fish and sharks that marine documentarian John Wong recalls seeing when he dived off Port Dicksonís coast some 15 years ago. "Yes, it was possible then but people now refuse to believe that we could once dive in PD," he says.

Coral cover, although still present at the 7th, 8th and 9th miles of Port Dickson, is poor, says marine biologist Lee Yoke Lee, who works with the World Wide Fund For Nature. A November 2002 to February 2003 survey Lee carried out for her Masterís degree found that sedimentation rates had quadrupled over a 20 year period due to the construction of resorts, condominiums and the like, as well as loss of mangrove forests that traditionally acted as a buffer between land and sea.

Year after year, increasing amounts of fine sediment found its way into Port Dicksonís waters through rivers, and once there, reduced the amount of sunlight reaching the corals, hampering their ability to produce food. In their struggle to remove these sediments, corals expend all their energy inflating their tissues or manipulating sediments with their tentacles. Too tired from all the huffing and puffing of housekeeping, the beleaguered corals just arenít growing, Lee discovered.

There is no silver lining to the dark cloud hovering over the corals. Lee projects only further degradation for them as sedimentation rates increase in the coming years.

All this happens because proper development guidelines have been ignored, says Ibrahim. "Just look at the overdeveloped seafront where we have hotels and resorts that stretch out into the water. "Such development is dangerous and difficult to manage, as the recent tsunami has shown us." Ibrahim is but echoing what regulations have been calling for since the Department of Irrigation and Drainage guidelines on erosion control for development projects in coastal zones came into force in 1997.

Chief among these are guidelines requiring development projects like resorts and hotels to be situated 60 metres from sandy coasts and 400 metres from muddy coasts. In many cases, beachfront development is anything but the prescribed distance from the coast.

The other bad news about Port Dickson is the use and abuse of the beach itself, says Ibrahim. "On weekends, people park on the beach, have barbecues, picnics, and leave rubbish everywhere. "There is no zoning of the beach for specific uses and no one to monitor and manage the crowds." These are crowds that number 30,000 weekly and 80,000 during holidays and festivals last year. Mejar (rtd) Anthony Raj, the president of Port Dicksonís Residents Association, says holiday-makers build bonfires on the beach under the trees, leaving that and plastic bags, styrofoam containers and a mound of other rubbish for someone else to clean up. This "someone else" is the Port Dickson Municipal Council, and just keeping the 13km stretch of beaches under its jurisdiction clean costs RM1.5 million a year, says council president Sabri Said. While Raj says there are too few bins along the beach, most of them too small and cleared infrequently, Sabri says beach users need to change their attitude towards cleanliness.

Differences of opinion aside, the fact remains that there is a lot of rubbish on the beach. Students on a clean-up drive of the Teluk Kemang beach in November collected more than 160kg of trash, mostly cigarette butts, plastic wrappers and straws. Then there is the question of development in the town itself which one letter-writing resident termed "a concrete jungle".

The general lament is that Port Dickson, as a resort town and as the closest beach retreat to major populations centres like Kuala Lumpur, Seremban and Malacca, should have better ambience. Improvements are on the way, assures Negri Sembilan Environment and Human Resources Committee chairman Datuk Peter Lai Yit Fee ó RM20 million worth of improvements. These federal funds will go mainly towards the nourishment of beaches eroded over time, widening them from 10 metres to 60 metres by the end of the year.

The Stateís sewage treatment centres will be centralised, eliminating sewage pipes on the beach and waste flowing out to sea. The council plans to construct walkways, upgrade facilities at the Pantai Tanjung Gemuk beach and build a sports and beach recreation complex, says Sabri, while Lai has promised State Government support for the council in handling the perennial problem of cleanliness.

While the State Governmentís realisation for the need for improvement in Port Dickson is reassuring, a great deal remains to be done to return Port Dickson to its former glory.

An integrated coastal zone management needs to be put in place. One that will end overlapping responsibilities of development agencies, address sectoral interests and give local council the staff and funding it needs to see plans through.

There must also be a plan that looks towards sustainable management of the coastline with the involvement of all stakeholders, especially the people of Port Dickson, says Ibrahim.

Locals who have lived most of their lives in Port Dickson must be the ones suffering the most heartache because they have witnessed just how bad things have become, Lee says. She also wants to see the tourism industry give back to the environment by supporting conservation efforts.

Lee says both the authorities and the industry need to realise that they cannot go on developing Port Dickson without regard for the environment. A beach resort, after all, is only as good as its clean environs, long, sandy uninterrupted beaches and sparkling water. "The sad thing about Port Dickson is that people donít really want to go there to bathe in the sea but just to have a view of it while they relax in swimming pools," says Lee. "All the hotels, resorts and tourist facilities would mean little if people no longer want to go to Port Dickson. "It may still generate income from shipping, agriculture and its oil refineries, but it would end up being one of those tourist spots with no soul."

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