The price of connectivity

A file pix showing a tapir signboard along Jalan Bukit Beruntung/Shah Alam highway to warn motorists of possible tapir crossings

IT is estimated that more than 25mil kilometres of new roads will be built worldwide by 2050, and many of these roads will slice into our forests and jungles.

Unfortunately, while development is welcome, new roads will also undoubtedly connect wildlife poachers, as seen with the East-West Highway that traverses the Belum-Temengor forests in Perak, and illegal loggers.

New roads also pose as barriers that cut off animals from their larger habitat and potentially trap wildlife, as seen in the recent case of a tapir injuring itself when it fell into a ditch in Kuantan.

According to the Malaysian Nature Society Selangor Branch, when a highway was built through the forests at Bukit Cherakah near Shah Alam in Selangor, at least seven tapirs were knocked down by motorists.

It is sad to hear this, especially since the population of tapirs has decreased drastically in recent years.

Yes, roads are needed to connect people and places and essential to a nation’s future development. But is there a way to plan our roads in such a way that it limits adverse environmental impact?

Is there a balance that can be struck between development and environmental preservation?

A new study, I believe, has the answer. The study creates a “global roadmap” for prioritising road building across the planet, and tries to balance the competing demands of development and environmental protection.

The map has two components: an “environmental-values” layer that estimates the natural importance of ecosystems, and a “road-benefits” layer that estimates the potential for increased agriculture production via new or improved roads.

The authors of this study, who were published in the journal Nature last year, said that by combining the two layers, it was possible to identify areas where new roads have most potential benefit, areas where road building should be avoided, and conflict areas “where potential costs and benefits are both sizable”.

“It’s challenging but we think we’ve identified where in the world new roads would be most environmentally damaging,” said co-author Professor Andrew Balmford from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology.

“For particular regions the approach can be improved by adding detailed local information but we think our overall framework is a powerful one.”

“Roads often open a Pandora’s Box of environmental problems,” said Professor William Laurance of James Cook University in Australia, the study’s lead author.

“But we also need roads for our societies and economies, so the challenge is to decide where to put new roads – and where to avoid them.”

Malaysia, I feel, is lacking with regard to such planning, and as such more thought should be put into the building of roads and highways.

A planned new expressway in the Klang Valley, for example, will see portions of protected forest levelled. It is necessary, however, that a proper study is done beforehand with all costs weighed against the benefits before the new road is constructed. 

Pollution of water sources, risks to dam integrity and safety, noise and air pollution, and of course, threats to wildlife should all be considered beforehand because our forests are just too precious.

> The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own
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