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Tuesday, 13 February 2018 | MYT 12:00 AM

Reeling from pong of pollution

IRISH jokes poke fun at Irishmen’s love for drinking. American jokes tease them for being loud and belligerent.

Then there are jokes about Penangites, and a popular one tends to rib them about wanting everything to be geographically near them.

For most islanders, a 15-minute drive is too far and a trip across Penang Bridge is serious. A journey. A veritable expedition that will need planning and preparation.

But jokes aside, there is something sinister about this hiding in south Seberang Prai.

This Penang mentality is so different from the distance perceptions of people in Perak, Selangor and Johor, where I have lived. In their big states, they think nothing of driving 45 minutes to see a friend.

Is there something about being surrounded by water that truncates ones perception of tolerable distances?

A certain professor articulated this trait of Penangites to me too last December.

“Aiyah, Penangites want everything to be close together and that is where the problem starts,” she said to me.

We were talking about the floating fish farms not far from Sungai Udang in south Seberang Prai.

You can see these 186 floating farms to the left of Sultan Abdul Halim Mu’adzam Shah Bridge towards Penang island.

Anchored to the sea floor, the farms are arrayed as close to each other as possible.

I did not realise the problem until the professor pointed it out to me; each farm raises thousands of tonnes of fish a year and that, of course, means tens of thousands of fish poop churning out of each floating structure.

File photo of a polluted canal in Kampung Valdor, South Seberang Prai, with 94 times more ammonia than the lowest level for a Class Five or highly polluted river.
File photo of a polluted canal in Kampung Valdor, South Seberang Prai, with 94 times more ammonia than the lowest level for a Class Five or highly polluted river.

When the slow current of neap tides rule the sea, the faeces will just sink to the shallow bottom beneath the farms.

The resulting explosion of ammonia as the waste breaks down can be devastating on fish fry, giving the farmers production problems which the professor said can be solved if they moved away from each other. But they won’t.

Alarmingly, the same kind of pollution is happening on land not far from the floating farms.

Less than 4km from the toll plaza of the second Penang bridge are about 60 pig, chicken and duck farms, all packed almost wall-to-wall in a 140ha-area in Valdor.

They have been there since the 60s but those days, there were only a handful.

Flowing out from the packed zone is a canal and in 2015, it was discovered that the canal’s water had 94 times more ammonia than a Class Five river pollution reading set by the Department of Environment.

I traced the flow of this canal on Google Earth’s satellite view.

It meanders for 3.8km till the toll plaza of the second Penang bridge and passes along the way the expanse of rapidly developing areas in Bandar Cassia and Batu Kawan, with townships, a university and a globally renowned home furnishing shoppers paradise coming up.

Years ago, the government identified 1,088ha of relocation land for the Valdor farms now packed in 140ha.

The much larger land plots will allow the farmers to build proper waste treatment systems.

But they won’t move and seem to continue to exist there with impunity.

One lazy weekend a few months ago, I drove around Bandar Cassia in search of ponds and canals for some light fishing.

I found a roadside pond and spied a ball of haruan (striated snakehead) fry swimming just beneath the surface. Excitedly, I clipped on a lure to the end of my line, cast it out and tried to trigger a bite from the breeding haruan.

I stopped after 15 minutes when I realised the sour smell of the air around the pond was the stench of pig dung.

Last month, ASEAN elected George Town as one of the cleanest cities in the region, but I did not rejoice; no point having a clean front porch when your backyard is like a pig sty, literally.