NST Online  7th December 2008

YOU don’t mess with nature. And those who mess with nature don’t usually pay. Instead, as in yesterday’s tragedy at the Bukit Antarabangsa area, the homeowners and their families pay for it, some with their lives.

It was just like the infamous Highland Towers apartment block collapse in December 1993, just 1.5km from yesterday’s tragedy, where 48 people lost their lives. The lessons of Highland Towers obviously were not learnt, despite the passionate promises of politicians and developers, and the homeowners seem oblivious to the dangers or choose to ignore them. House owners and would-be home owners should be aware by now that they have to take responsibility for themselves, do their own research before they buy a house and invest in an insurance.

The Bukit Antarabangsa tragedy yesterday was just waiting to happen. Warnings were issued, first by the experts assembled by the Public Works Department who, ironically, zeroed in on 45 residential areas in Ampang. Their findings were presented at last month’s International Conference on Slopes 2008 in Kuala Lumpur. Their study of the slopes in Ulu Klang found over a hundred landslide scars, with most left unattended and having the potential of becoming fatal slope failures. They also found that slopes in this area had been stabilised with ground anchors that were not maintained, and identified regular maintenance and repair works as a critical issue in Ampang area.

Perhaps it is a case of the government machinery grinding slowly to act. Nature served another warning last Sunday when two sisters in Gombak were killed when the family bungalow was hit by a landslide. Just on Thursday a landslide swept past a retaining wall of a car park in Kuala Lumpur.

Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak yesterday announced that all hillside development must stop. It must be noted that similar announcements had been made by politicians, and the Selangor government, for instance, has regulations against developing slopes with a gradient of 25 degrees or more. But at the end of the day, approval comes from the local council, which may not have the manpower or the expertise. The Ampang local council, for instance, has only one engineer who can evaluate building plans, while Selayang, another area with slopes, has none.

The Public Works Department’s slope engineering division, set up after the Damansara rockfall, knows all about slope maintenance, landslide risks and methods to reduce them. Give them the political backing and the money to fast track all the repairs and maintenance that they need to do now, not in the next Malaysia Plan. Now, before more people die.