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Updated: April 26 2006

Salleh Buang

Kate Janeway, a land use attorney in Seattle, United States, has described landslides as “a dramatic manifestation of the collision between humans and other natural forces”. I agree, for invariably man comes out the loser in this collision, not Mother Nature. While landslides are frequent occurrences from a geological point of view, they seem rare events from the human perspective. Perhaps this is due to wishful thinking, or to our well-known human failing – that Malaysians forget easily.It is true that nobody can predict exactly when a landslide will occur. But we don’t have to be experts to be able to read the signs that a landslide is just around the corner.

Hulu Klang is not on the dark side of the moon. Local newspapers have reported several times in the past that 60 per cent of the area has a “high risk of landslides”.

Apart from the latest in Kampung Pasir, there have been at least four fatal landslides in the vicinity since 1993.

Geologist Prof Dr Ibrahim Komo was quoted as saying that more landslides could occur in the area.

“Residents most in danger are those living on hilltops and at the foot of the slopes,” he said. “The soil at the slopes can no longer support rapid development. It is just a matter of time before another landslide takes place.” The residents of Bukit Mas in Taman Melawati were therefore understandably upset that the authorities gave a developer the goahead to build a seven-storey block of apartments and a six-storey block of town villas on a nearby slope. The approval was given in 1990, but the development was put on hold after the Highland Towers tragedy of 1993.

Sadly, it seems that this disaster has been forgotten.

Owners of 232 houses in Bukit Mas have long suffered the adverse effects of nearby development projects, enduring frequent landslides as well as property damage. The foundations of their houses have weakened and need urgent shoring up. To asses the extent of damage, they had hired a consultant to check on the safety of their environment – and learned that they were sitting next to a time bomb waiting to explode.

A newspaper reported last Sunday that Ampang Jaya Municipal Council (MPAJ) president Datuk Ahmad Shafii Saidin was “grilled” for almost an hour by reporters over the Kampung Pasir tragedy.

I found his reply to the question on why MPAJ kept on approving hillside projects despite frequent landslides extremely disturbing. Ahmad Shafii reportedly said: “Do all the reporters in this room think we should stop development? We cannot do that. People still want to live here. I cannot say there will be no more development here. If not, there will be no more MPAJ. As long as plans are submitted to us, we are required to examine them.” I keep an open mind.

Perhaps he was misquoted; maybe he said more than what was reported. But if it is true that local authorities “cannot stop development”, even if it is carried out on hazardous slopes, then who else can? The MPAJ chief’s reply reminded me of one given by a Menteri Besar some time ago, when he was asked why development was allowed in a particularly sensitive location in his State. He said the land was an alienated piece of property, not State land, and the owner had every right to develop it. What was not stated openly was that the land had been alienated to one of the State’s own agencies.

Selangor Menteri Besar Datuk Dr Mohamad Khir Toyo was reportedly very angry over the Hulu Klang landslide and told reporters that it was caused by the failure of a retaining wall built by the developer of a nearby project.

The wall was completed hardly a week before the tragedy occurred.

The Menteri Besar was also quoted as saying “I am fed up with the developer’s attitude … the State Government’s technical team foresaw the problem and told the developer to take mitigation measures to prevent a landslide. But it did not heed the call, and I am coming down hard on the developer. I will make sure future projects involving high gradient areas are scrutinised with a fine toothcomb.” My question is, instead of just studying “projects involving high gradient areas” with a fine toothcomb and setting conditions that will not be complied with, why not just leave these hazardous slopes alone? Must every application for development on hazardous slopes be considered? Don’t we have a policy, at Federal or State level, mandating that such applications be summarily dismissed? Taking a broader look at landslide risks from the planning perspective, do we have to acknowledge our record of risk identification and reduction. Have we conducted the necessary surveys and come up with adequate maps, plans, rules, regulations and monitoring programmes? In terms of risk education and minimisation, we have clear-cut policies and can training be provided to all the relevant parties? In terms of risk transfer (or spreading of burden), what have we done in respect of insurance, disaster relief and public buyout programmes for risky and damaged properties? It is time for a clear development policy on hazardous slope areas. Steps should be taken to construct maps outlining those areas in order to limit future development.

In short, they will demarcate the growth boundaries for the future – effectively leaving the hazardous slopes alone.

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April 2006
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