The proposed Strait of Malacca bridge: Linking or breaking the region?

The Strait of Malacca bridge project connecting Teluk Gong in Malacca and Dumai in Indonesia. Source: Strait of Malacca Partners Sdn Bhd. 

Mohd Hazmi Mohd Rusli & Wan Izatul Asma Wan Talaat

(TMI) – Plans have been mooted to construct a bridge to link the Indonesian port-city of Dumai in the Sumatran province of Riau with Malacca. This bridge will obviously result to any of these two circumstances; linking or breaking the region.

The groundwork for the project started since 2006 and studies show that the bridge project is technically feasible. If the project is carried out, the bridge has been estimated to cost US$12.5 billion. The Import-Export Bank of China has agreed to finance 85% of the total cost of the bridge project.

This proposed 127.92km-long bridge is said to be capable of fostering new economic opportunities between the two countries particularly in stimulating trade and the tourism industry. Malaysia will undertake to build 48.68km of the bridge while Indonesia will construct the remaining 79.24km.

However, the Indonesian government has announced that they would give priority to the construction of Strait of Sunda bridge over the Strait of Malacca bridge. The Indonesian government intends to first integrate Java-Sumatra as a centre of economic development with the Sunda bridge project.

The Oresund Bridge

The proposed Strait of Malacca Bridge is likely to resemble the Oresund Bridge that connects the Danish capital of Copenhagen in Denmark and Malmo in Sweden. The 16km combined bridge and tunnel stands over the Oresund Sound and connects both nations by road and rail, and it was officially opened to public in June 2000.

When the construction of the bridge over Oresund Sound was proposed, it received adverse criticism from the shipping community as it was thought that it would hamper shipping flow in the Oresund Sound. As a result, Germany submitted a proposal to the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) to suspend the construction of the bridge.

As a compromise, Sweden suggested that the bridge should be designed in two features; half a bridge and half a tunnel. This compromise was advocated to allow bigger ships to navigate across the Oresund Sound.

It resulted in the increase of the construction expenditure of the bridge to three times more than the cost that was budgeted for in the original plan. Currently the Oresund Bridge carries six million vehicles per year with the railway link transporting eight million people annually across the Oresund Sound.

Besides the Oresund Bridge, the proposed Strait of Malacca bridge will also resemble the proposed 18km Fehmarn Belt Bridge that will connect Germany and Denmark and cut journey times between Copenhagen and Hamburg. This project, that has received opposition from environmentalists and local authorities in German, calling it to be unnecessary, is expected to be completed in 2018.

Given the busy nature of the Strait of Malacca, it is likely that similar impacts to the Oresund Bridge experience, would occur if the Strait of Malacca bridge plan were to be implemented and it is likely that any proposed modifications to the plan would also substantially increase the price of the construction of the bridge.

Environmental implication

It is anticipated that such a huge project would not only adversely affect the coastal ecosystems on both shores of the bridge; it would also affect the Strait as a whole, from hydrological, environmental and economic perspectives.

The movement and speed of currents would be changed by the existence of pillars holding up the bridge, and could potentially alter the nature of the Strait. For example, the seabed ecosystems of the areas where the bridge would be erected would suffer from adverse impacts as a result of piling works and the placement of construction materials.

From the environmental perspective, the project would encroach the nesting grounds of the hawksbill turtle as the construction site of the bridge on the Malaysian side would be around Padang Kemunting, an important nesting area for this species of marine animal.

Given the fact that the construction of the Bridge would itself alter the seabed ecosystems of the Strait, it has the potential to negatively impact the fisheries activities and the marine and coastal tourism industry in that area.

Disrupting shipping traffic

The construction would have the effect of closing down a large portion of the TSS areas of the Strait of Malacca, which would result in potential navigational hazards for ships and thus, hamper traffic flow through the waterway.

The construction and presence of the bridge with its many concrete pillars would not only reduce the speed of vessels sailing through the Strait but would also cause difficulty for large container vessels and oil tankers navigating through this area. Slower movement of shipping traffic would cause congestion in the Strait and this may eventually lead to maritime accidents.

Spills of oil, chemical and noxious substances from such accidents could jeopardise the sensitive marine environment of the Straits of Malacca and Singapore. It would also mean that transits by shipping traffic would take a longer time higher shipping costs increases prices for products sold in markets worldwide.

Tsunami and earthquake threats

Upon completion, the bridge would connect the Malay Peninsula with the Indonesian island of Sumatra. The Malay Peninsula is located on a stable continent which is outside the Pacific Ring of Fire. Sumatra, however, is located within the Pacific Ring of Fire, an area with major seismic activities, and is exposed to the threat of earthquakes and tsunamis.

The 2004 tsunami incident that ravaged Aceh manifestly demonstrated that the region is exposed to these kinds of natural calamities. Should the bridge take a direct hit from another tremor or a tsunami, it is likely to be badly damaged.

The economy of both Malaysia and Indonesia would suffer adversely should the bridge collapse entirely or in parts. Shipping transits in the Strait would be hampered with the debris of the shattered bridge dispersed through the Strait and economic activities such as fisheries and tourism would be heavily impacted.

However, the proponent of the project, the Strait of Malacca Partners Sdn Bhd contended that the site of the bridge is located on a Eurasian plate outside any fault line. Though there is an unfavorable seismic zone approximately 100 km away from the project site, there has been no known record of active or frequent seismic activities in the last ten thousand years.

Linking or breaking?

Another issue which arises is whether the bridge could really foster economic benefits for both countries. Would the level of cost involved in constructing the bridge be justified by subsequent usage?

The cost of constructing the bridge would result in high debt liabilities for both Malaysia and Indonesia which would be passed on to bridge users in higher tolls. In contrast to the Oresund Bridge in the Scandinavian region, both Malaysia and Indonesia are developing States and do not enjoy the relatively high standards of living of Scandinavia.

If the toll imposed on the bridge is too expensive, the public at large may refrain from using it and may revert to using ferries and boats to cross the Strait of Malacca.

In terms of tourism, the bridge may attract more tourists into both countries but this cannot be guaranteed. With the tropical weather conditions which are common in both Malaysia and Indonesia, thunder storms are a natural phenomenon in the evening. Driving across the Strait would be dangerous in this type of weather.

If there is not much vehicle traffic on the bridge, drivers may likely then be exposed to hijacking and other criminal activities like highway robberies and carjacking. The substantial length of the bridge which is likely to be up to 127.92km would make it difficult for the authorities to maintain the safety and security of drivers.