Sunday, May 22, 2011

Tragedies from lessons unlearnt

Tragedies from lessons unlearnt


HIGHLAND Towers. Karak Highway. Taman Hillview. Bukit Antarabangsa. And now, Felcra Semungkis. These names alone are enough to evoke the most painful images -- of wrecked houses and cars, of families in grief and of rescue workers pulling out bodies from under piles of soil and rubble.

The continuing failure to prevent fatal landslides is nothing short of a national tragedy, one that highlights a stubborn refusal on the part of developers, local authorities and the public to learn from the harsh lessons of the past.

Few details have emerged so far, but it is, perhaps, no coincidence that this most recent disaster at the Hidayah Madrasah Al-Taqwa orphanage at km14 Jalan Hulu Langat, occurred during a long spell of daily torrential rain.
Landslides are an unfortunate but common feature of the nation's geology, part of the perils of living in a tropical country where heavy rainfall plays a large role in soil erosion and destabilisation.

In recent years, rapid urbanisation, overdevelopment and deforestation have contributed further to the destabilising of soil, with a greater number of heavy, concrete structures being built upon gradually weakened earth. According to a study, 26 landslides were reported in the media between 1993 and 2002.

These events have caused 150 deaths, 30 others injured and thousands more to be evacuated. This works out to more than five deaths in each incident.

Yet there are few signs that we have learned to live with the reality of landslides, the way the Japanese have learned to adapt to life with regular earthquakes.

Rampant deforestation continues with no blanket ban issued on hill slope development. At least one minister has defended the decision to continue development in hilly areas as a way of dealing with a rapidly growing population and increasing land scarcity.

Demand among house-buyers for hill-slope properties has not diminished either, despite warnings from the victims of previous landslides about the potential of heavy personal and economic losses one would incur when such a tragedy occurs.

Some may also point a finger at overzealous developers who fail to be fully transparent when presenting the safety details of their building projects to prospective buyers and local authorities.

The Public Works Department's slope engineering division, set up in 2004, has the expertise in slope maintenance, landslide risk assessment and methods to reduce them.

However, the lack of resources and manpower at local councils have left them ill-equipped to adequately evaluate development plans, to monitor risk areas or to undertake the quick action needed to prevent landslides.

And despite efforts to look into the causes of landslides, most of the studies have been conducted after the fact. Not enough attention has been given to coming up with workable methods and early warning systems that can warn us of landslides and therefore, minimise the loss of life,

One thing is certain, landslides are here to stay.

Lives can only be saved when one finds the right balance between the need for development and the need to protect the public. A balance that can only be attained with knowledge and political will.

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