Sabah, Malaysia: Beauty and the Beast / / by Marcus Dobbs

Marcus is responsible for leading geoscience research in Malaysia as part of the BGS Official Development Assistance Programme. Geoscience for Sustainable Futures seeks to utilise earth science to provide solutions to the major challenges recognised in the UN's Sustainable Development Goals. Marcus' blog recounts his experience of the Malaysia National Geoscience Conference on the island of Borneo...

'Vanishing Wall' by Kenji Chai, a mural on a derelict warehouse opposite Suria Sabah mall depicts the cost of human greed to the wildlife of Sabah

It’s Saturday lunchtime in Birmingham International Airport and Wetherspoons is overflowing with broods of hens and herds of stags. There is also me, Marcus Dobbs, Engineering Geologist and Co-I on the British Geological Survey’s Official Development Assistance Programme (BGS-ODA), on my way to attend the annual Malaysia Geoscience Conference.
For the last two years, BGS has been working with the Malaysian Department for Minerals and Geoscience (JMG) to improve the sustainability and resilience of Kuala Lumpur through better integration of geoscience into the planning, design, construction, operation and remediation of buildings and infrastructure. This will be our first opportunity to present our work to the Malay geoscience community. Despite the daunting 24-hour-3-leg-journey via everyone’s favourite turbulence hotspot – the Bay of Bengal – lying before me, I am excited. This year's conference is in the state of Sabah on the island of Borneo, a place I’ve wanted to visit ever since reading Redmond O’Hanalon’s Into the Heart of Borneo in my early teens.

I meet two BGS colleagues, Graham Leslie and Tom Dodd, in Dubai before flying on together to Kuala Lumpur and then our final destination, the state capital Kota Kinabalu (KK). I travel with these two a lot but, as is our unspoken tradition, we sit separately. I’m not sure why, perhaps it’s because we all feel the same way about long distance travel; that it is to be endured rather than enjoyed and enduring is best done alone. Consequently, I will spare you the grisly details of our journey.
Colourful Kota Kinabalu during the day

On arrival, KK is an immediate assault on our long-haul-travel-dulled senses. A chaotic orchestra of sound and smell – some elements recognisable but many not. Previously known as Jesselton, KK was developed by the British North Borneo Company as a trading port for exporting rubber, tobacco and timber. Today it is a city of 450,000 and a gateway to the island of Borneo for tourists from China, Taiwan, Korea, Peninsular Malaysia and a few from Australia and the UK. The city is a dichotomy of wealth and poverty, of humans and nature. It appears to be sandwiched between idyllic desert islands to the west and forbidding tropical mountain jungle to the east. Five-star hotels and air-conditioned shopping malls rub up against concrete apartment blocks and industrial buildings.

Sunset over the tropical desert islands that make up the Abdul Rahman National Park to the west of Kota Kinabalu

The conference, which is bookended by a workshop and field trip, is well attended. While dominated by Malaysian geoscientists from industry, academia and government, there are also attendees from Thailand, India, Nigeria and the UK. It’s good to see our colleagues and friends in JMG again. They push their way through the conference throng and with genuine affection shake our hands and share jokes: Malays and British share a similar sense of humour; we laugh about everything and tend to be quite self-deprecating. There are also other Malaysian collaborators on our project from academia, government and industry; those present at the conference come to see us, those not send messages of support through WhatsApp. No longer a curious oddity, we now feel part of this geoscience community.

The BGS / JMG ODA Team: Muhammad Ramzanee Mohd Noh, Qalam A'zad Rosle, Tom Dodd, Marcus Dobbs and Graham Leslie. The relationship built between BGS and JMG has developed over a number of years

The two days of the main conference go by quickly. We have three presentations to give, all of which are well attended and well received; no mean feat when there are three parallel sessions being run. JMG's Mr Qalam – Senior Geoscience Officer, based at the Selangor State Office – gives attendees the first chance to see one of the main outcomes of our work in Malaysia over the last year: a 3D geological model of Kuala Lumpur (KL). While far from perfect, our model has proven the effectiveness of the workflow and highlighted areas of KL where our knowledge of the geology is lacking. Already we can also see the potential it has to be the basis for future applied 3D models, including geotechnical and hydrogeological models, which will be of real benefit for planning and development in KL.

Tom shows how poorly understood the Kenny Hill Formation is, despite being present below much of Kuala Lumpur, Putra Jaya and Selangor state. He also gives some initial insights on the deposition environment of the formation based on a number of rock outcrops observed in and around the city. We propose that developing a better understanding of the deposition environment of the Kenny Hill Formation will help better predict the distribution of rock types, and consequently the engineering and physical properties, below many major urban areas in western Peninsular Malaysia.

The conference dinner is a lively affair, with traditional Malaysian food and Dayak music and dance

Graham presents his evidence for an ancient tectonic plate boundary underneath eastern Kuala Lumpur - the Jalang Wangsa Thrust - which is marked by a 300 metre thick ultramylonite (a rock that has been seriously pulverised by extensive shear faulting). We believe that understanding these large-scale fault structures will help predict the type and orientation of smaller fractures, which in turn have a significant effect on groundwater flow and engineering properties in the ground beneath KL. Understanding the character of the fractures in the ground is critical for any future tunnelling or groundwater abstraction in KL. 

The conference's headline acts do not disappoint, in particular the keynotes delivered by Prof. Joy Jacqueline Pereira and Prof. Ibrahim Komoo. Their overarching message is that geoscience is about more than rocks, it’s about the practical application of earth science to support current and future challenges. For the Malaysians this not only includes sustainable use of natural resources and mitigating earth hazards risks, but also developing and maintaining natural capital to benefit both the biosphere and anthroposphere. The keynotes also emphasise the shared responsibility of all geoscience practitioners to communicate our knowledge to those outside our community: after all everyone and everything on the planet is a geoscience stakeholder!

Mt Kinabalu National Park, viewed from Route 22 on the way to the town of Kundasang

Perhaps it is hubris on my part, but in the workshops and keynote talks I see that the seeds sown by BGS in our previous visits appear to have germinated; throughout the conference, frequent mention is made of the importance of geoscience to cities and the role geoscientists can play in addressing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Universiti Malaysia Sabah stated their desire to develop a 3D geological model for KK, and even the conference title ‘Geoscience for Earth Sustainability’ appears to be a nod to the BGS ODA programme. It really does feel that the work we are doing with JMG is having real impact in Malaysia.

For me though, the real highlight is the conference field trip; I don’t think anyone becomes a geoscientist to sit in a room listening to people talk! The one-day field trip takes us out of KK to Kundasang at the base of Mount Kinabalu. At 4,095 m, it’s the 20th highest peak in Southeast Asia and the 20th highest in the world by prominence. Mt Kinabalu is an exposed granodiorite pluton that intruded an accretionary complex at the margin of an oceanic-continental subduction zone. The mountain and its surrounds form Kinabalu National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which is home to more than 5,000 plant, 300 bird and 100 mammal species including the stinking corpse lily, rhinoceros hornbill, and proboscis monkey. Many of its rare and endemic species are attributable to the mountain’s geology and geomorphology, as are the earthquakes and landslides. In 2015, 18 hikers were killed by rockfalls triggered by a magnitude 6.0 earthquake. Several landslide complexes in the foothills of Mt Kinabalu have also caused widespread damage to the town of Kundasang and nearby holiday resorts.

Damage caused to a meditation centre by a large-scale rotational landslide at a holiday resort on the outskirts of Kundasang

We make a number of stops in and around the town of Kundasang on the edge of Kinabalu National Park to see how living on an active fault zone and large landslide complex has affected the people and landscape here. We are all captivated by the majesty of the mountain and immediately understand why people, despite the danger, wish to live here.

As I sit in the departure lounge reflecting on the trip, I realise that I have been profoundly affected by this place. Everywhere I look – whether it be geology, nature or humanity – in Sabah I behold both the beauty and the beast.

Conference attendees line up for one of the many group photos during the fieldtrip to Kundasang