Damage caused by the Bukit Antarabangsa landslide of 6 Dec 2008 (Pic courtesy of Raj Kumar)
BARELY two months have passed, yet the lesson of the Bukit Antarabangsa hillside disaster is nearly forgotten.
Works Minister Datuk Seri Mohd Zin Mohamed has declared that projects on hillsides can proceed, with only a ban on the “tip fill” technique to ensure some measure of safety.
The ban does not reflect the gravity of the problem, as there are numerous other factors that, as advised by the Petaling Jaya City Council (MBPJ) engineers, can cause landslides to occur. These include the lack of proper drainage to channel running rainwater and the type of earth a hill is made up of.
Other concerns related to hillside development include the displacement of wildlife, the loss of flora and fauna, and the possibility of causing flash floods in surrounding areas.
Take for example the Sungai Buloh Forest Reserve, which was once earmarked for development under the previous Selangor government. The development proposal ran contrary to the study conducted on the forest, which is found to be rich in biodiversity and which is the main water retention area for west Petaling Jaya.
“Any encroachment and development of the area will speed up the process of land erosion and disrupt the hydrological system and air quality of nearby areas like PJU10, PJU5 and Sungai Buloh,” said the report. In other words, the forest is important to control floods and erosion.
While the proposed development of the Sungai Buloh Forest Reserve was stopped, the surrounding areas of Medan Damansara were not as lucky. In a Malay Mail report, rainwater could be seen overflowing from a drainage system after a downpour, presumably as a result of a nearby hillside development.
Who is responsible?
Bukit Antarabangsa Residents Association chairperson Dr Mohamed Rafick Khan Abdul Rahman raised a furore over the lifting of the hillside development ban. As a victim of a landslide tragedy, he finds it difficult to believe that local authorities have the necessary expertise to ensure public safety.
His views are not without merit.
Under present rules, the developer is the one who pays for the costs of reports — from soil tests to architectural plans on hillslope stabilisation — for submission to the local councils. The councils are, in turn, tasked with vetting the reports and imposing other conditions that it deems necessary.
Once the approvals are given, the project continues until completion. The amenities and infrastructure are then handed over to the local councils to maintain.
One hypothetical situation that could arise, assuming that a hillside project is completed in good shape, is the lack of monitoring and maintenance of infrastructure that could lead to a landslide years later.
In such instances, you can’t blame the developer. And based on the court ruling from the Highland Towers tragedy that makes local councils immune to damages resulting from negligence, you can’t sue the local council either.
Landslide at Hutan Pendidikan, Bukit Gasing (Source: gallery @ savebukitgasing.wordpress.com)
Mohamed Rafick rightly pointed out that there are insufficient laws governing hillside projects in Malaysia and more ought to be done to rectify such loopholes. Indeed, the lack of rules has resulted in numerous disputes between residents and developers.
There are benefits to having more stringent guidelines. Firstly, it allows residents to feel that their safety is assured, while developers would know in advance the costs involved in adhering to strict standards. Both parties would know that they are operating within a defined set of rules meant to protect everyone’s interests.
The developer would also not risk having a project stalled. Case in point: the Sanctuary Gasing project on Bukit Gasing that was prevented from taking off due to widespread protests and a residents’ lawsuit against the Kuala Lumpur City Hall.
More stringent guidelines also means that residents would not have to get riled up over a hillside project in their vicinity and risk getting defamation lawsuits, as was the case with the Medan Damansara Residents Association and the Damansara 21 developer.
Simply put, the present situation is bad for business for residents and developers.
By right, the government’s role as regulator and enforcement agency should include the drafting of additional legislation that would prevent such conflicts. This cannot be done at the local council level, as legislation at this level would still require the state government’s endorsement.
Whether the state or federal governments have the political will to introduce and implement such guidelines is another matter.
Even Selangor exco Elizabeth Wong faced much opposition and threats when she lobbied to have development on Class 3 and 4 hillslopes banned. So we can expect even more resistance should there be any attempt to introduce stricter guidelines.
Perhaps the federal government does not wish to act because of the potential fallout with corporate giants. Will the Selangor state government take up the challenge, then? That’s left to be seen. Whatever the case, hillside development seems set to continue, and affected residents can only protest and pray for the best.
MBPJ councillor KW Mak wishes to extend his support to Elizabeth Wong during these tough times. He knows her to be a hardworking and bold assemblyperson who has championed numerous issues involving the environment and hillside development.