Landslide in Bukit Antarabangsa (all pics courtesy of Raj Kumar)
THE landslide that claimed people’s lives and destroyed property in the wee hours of 6 Dec 2008 in Bukit Antarabangsa was an eerie reminder of the 1993 Highland Towers tragedy.
Almost like a knee-jerk reaction, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi declared an immediate stop to all hillslope development projects. At best, the premier’s statement would only put on hold any ongoing project for a month pending investigations into the safety of these projects. But it is certainly not possible to stop these projects indefinitely.
Any development permit that has already been issued to developers would have gone through all the necessary procedures. This would include any safety precautions, recommended by engineering and architectural experts, which need to be in place as part of the development.
The problem may not lie in the developer’s plans but in the monitoring work that should, by right, be done by local council officers. It bears remembering also that sometimes, in order to cut costs, developers do not carry out what is detailed in the plans. This is why local councils need to stringently and regularly inspect these work sites to ensure that nothing is amiss.
Should council officers be negligent and not bother to thoroughly inspect the progress of the work from start to finish, the local council itself should be liable for negligence. Except that Section 95(2) of the Street, Drainage and Building Act 1974 provides immunity to the council from legal suits due to such negligence, as was demonstrated in the Highland Towers case judgement.
And since it would take years for such defects to result in a landslide, trying to track down and pin the blame on the developer or all those responsible for the project would require a lot of effort and money.
Despite calls to amend that section of the law to ensure that local councils are more accountable, our elected representatives in Parliament have instead maintained the status quo.
As an aside, the Penang Municipal Council issued a stop-work order on a bungalow project in Batu Ferringhi after inspections found that the project did not construct proper drainage. Would the inspection have been carried out if the Bukit Antarabangsa disaster had not happened?
Liability: the answer?
However, even if the law was rectified, that itself would not be the answer to the predicament we face. The judge in the Highland Towers case stated that if the council was held liable, it would open the floodgates to further claims. “Projects will stall. The local council may go bust. Even if it does not, is it fair, just and reasonable that taxpayers’ money be utilised to pay the ‘debts’ of such people?” said Justice Abdul Hamid.
Making local councils pay for their liability aside, the other issue is how competent and responsible council employees are. But for that to happen, the state government must find the will to sack or at least transfer out officers found to be incompetent or corrupt, and promote or hire officers who are competent and trustworthy. This, of course, can only fully happen in an environment where meritocracy is the rule of the game.
Until these issues can be adequately addressed, the Selangor government has placed a total ban on the development of Class 3 and Class 4 slopes. That still leaves open for development Class 1 and Class 2 slopes, and ongoing projects with permits given prior to the change in state government following the 8 March elections.
Cause and effect
Selangor Mentri Besar Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim has rightly said that one of the problems with property development is that it does not take into account surrounding areas. Local councils certainly need to have a more encompassing approach before approving any project.
Take for example the Sivan Temple atop Bukit Gasing, which presently has not submitted any plans to the local council. Although the case involves a place of worship in a forest reserve which has other legal implications aside from development permits, this development’s impact on surrounding areas is no different from that of any other hillslope development.
Petaling Jaya City Council (MBPJ) engineers have warned that a preliminary study of the temple shows that it is now covering more floor space and preventing water from being absorbed into the ground, resulting in more rainwater running through the drainage system in the surrounding areas.
Because the drains around Bukit Gasing were not designed for the heavier flow, spillage and minor erosion of the surrounding areas have been noted. An estimated RM2 million is needed to redo the drainage system due to the temple’s development.
The question is who should foot the bill? Will it be the temple committee that authorised the temple’s extension from a small shack to the complex that it is now? Or will it be the state authority for declaring that temples, including this new complex, shall not be torn down pending further notice? Does the state government have the right to demand for payment from the temple committee, since there are no rules governing this?
These are questions that the state government will have to answer, as the answers will determine how local councils deal with the surrounding problems resulting from existing and future hillslope projects.
Where does this leave present and potential future victims?
Sadly, I have no answer, at least not for past mistakes that will only result in tragedies years later. What is clear is this: residents are victims of a flawed system that protects those who should be held responsible, and no amount of witch-hunting will address the injustice that has befallen them.
1. ^There are several definitions of slopes. The most relevant from a Malaysian context is available here. Briefly, it states that Class 1 slopes have a gradient of between 19 and 27 degrees. Class 2, between 27 and 35 degrees. Class 3 has a gradient of more than 35 degrees, and is listed as high risk for any development.
MBPJ councillor KW Mak hopes Kuala Lumpur City Hall does not approve any development project on their side of Bukit Gasing as there is ample evidence to show that the hill is prone to landslides once vegetation is removed.
Yi Fan says
Going Beyond Panacea
I feel a little bit relieved that there is at least someone holding office like KW Mak, still exercising common sense and thinking analytically when disasters happen. Yes, immediate actions were required, as they were before. But such “immediate actions” should not mean ill-thought knee jerk reactions, such as the blanket ban issued by the PM or the announcement of the setting up of a commission by Penang CM.
There is no panacea in solving the hillside development issue specifically, and the broader land-use planning at local council level at large. Whether we invite top geo-technical experts from all over the world to write a manual, or we enact and implement stringent development laws, we won’t solve the problem once and for all.
The problem that we are facing and many fail to see is that politicians, Barisan Nasional and Pakatan Rakyat alike, are looking for their own political salient panacea, to sell to the people. They might succeed at last, in getting us to believe that they are doing something, hence we should vote for them to stay in office. Bbut they will ultimately fail in reducing landslides due to unsustainable development.
There are so many experts, professors and geo-technical engineers out there who are so keen to sell their solutions to the government now. Landslide monitoring software, hazard mapping, real-time monitoring systems, you name it. And as to what happened to the Johor floods in December 2006, the government will buy those products, costing tens of millions of taxpayers’ money. But are the problems solved?
No. Because we donÂ´t even identify and diagnose what the problem is. To do that, the government needs to talk to more people, not only the developers, the engineers and the lawyers, but the NGOs, social scientists, construction site workers, etc. Many NGO activists who might perceive the problem from a different perspective than the government, have to push even harder so that their voices reach decision makers.
My personal opinion as a civil engineer is the whole hillside development issue is larger than an engineering, local council monitoring, legal enforcement problem. Beware of someone who convinces you that after paying his team to complete an assessment study and buying the monitoring system, we will live happily ever after. He (most of the time it is a man) is NOT selling you a panacea, but a drug instead, to get you addicted, and killed slowly.
Hwa Shi-Hsia says
There should be some kind of independent body to do Environmental Impact Assessments – it shouldn’t be up to a consultant who is being paid by the developer.