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Sunday May 29, 2011

Lessons from past mistakes

A MAJOR landslide struck our country once again, this time at a cost of 16 young lives. Throughout the week, conversations among the general public were peppered with the question: “Have we learned anything from our past mistakes?”

While changes may not have occurred as quickly and as much as some may have hoped, the answer to that question is “yes”. In the wake of each landslide tragedy in recent years, after the initial media furore and public outcry had died down, there remained some kernels of truth or valuable lessons that were gleaned from the rubble of disaster.

The Highland Towers incident in 1993 showed us the horror and magnitude of a major landslide and resulted in the creation of a dedicated search and rescue team called SMART.

From the Bukit Lanjan slope failure in 2003, we learned that the country could not afford any more costly events that disrupted people's lives for months on end.

The 2006 Kampung Pasir disaster highlighted the fact that man-made slopes needed to be built according to guidelines, just like any other infrastructure such as roads and bridges.

The 2008 Bukit Antarabangsa landslide showed us that we are now beginning to experience the consequences of slope practices that were carried out 20 years ago, when slope engineering was a discipline that was little known.

And now the Hulu Langat landslide last week, which taught us that landslides can happen anytime, anywhere.

In response to all these disasters, changes have taken place. The Cabinet has set up a slope engineering branch within the Public Works Department to manage slopes in the country. A number of government agencies in housing and environment have drafted out guidelines on hillslopes.

Some state governments such as Selangor have taken steps to come up with their own set of guidelines and enforce more stringent checking of new hillside development proposals. And local authorities in vulnerable areas, such as Majlis Perbandaran Ampang Jaya and more recently five other authorities, are starting to set up dedicated slope units in the interest of slope and public safety.

Having said all that, we still have a long way to go. We have to stop reacting to all these disasters and instead start engaging proactively to mitigate future landslides. While landslides are sometimes caused by natural factors, many are by our own hands.

So what can we do to move forward?

First and foremost, there needs to be a dedicated slope agency in this country. In Hong Kong, there is a slope agency called the Geotechnical Engineering Office (GEO) which is a model for managing slopes and mitigating landslides. Among its many functions, some of GEO's responsibility is to catalogue and manage the slopes, conduct retrofitting (fixing) of existing slopes, control new ones that are coming up, and inform the public on safety and maintenance measures.

It outlines the roles and responsibilities of all stakeholders, including the public, so they know the role they play in ensuring slope safety. As to whether this model should be applied to Malaysia, we need to know that we have over 28,000 slopes throughout the country, many of them still uncatalogued and little data is available to planners and decision makers.

Assessment of a slope's safety cannot be done from looking at it at the surface or from space a lot of key information about a slope lies under our feet, under the ground, which cannot be seen and requires specialised knowledge, equipment and testing facilities.

Also, as more and more local authorities set up their dedicated slope units, there has to be a governing agency to ensure that guidelines and procedures in units throughout the country are standardised and uniformly implemented.

The name of the game is uniform enforcement of guidelines, which should be effectively managed by a central agency.

Some people might say that our weak culture on enforcement wouldn't rise to the level of GEO, but it should be noted that Hong Kong too suffered some devastating losses in lives and property before the agency was set up.

In addition to a dedicated slope agency, other ways to move forward is for state governments to follow a set of strict, comprehensive guidelines and communicate them to all state agencies that are involved in slopes.

Local authorities in hillside areas should have a system to manage slopes within their jurisdiction and respond to public reports of failures. And the public has a role in monitoring their own surroundings for any changes on the hills that may indicate signs of slope failures.

Local authority officers cannot be everywhere all the time, so we are our best early warning system. The website for Cawangan Kejuruteraan Cerun, JKR, has a section on the signs of landslides and measures that can be taken by the public.

There is a saying that “God allows us to experience the low points of life in order to teach us lessons we could not learn in any other way”. Landslides cannot be completely prevented, but we can learn to manage our risks by continuing to learn from the recent and past tragedies.

> Eriko Motoyama is Program Director of SlopeWatch, a community-based NGO that helps residents monitor their slopes for signs of landslides. She can be reached at eriko@slope watch.org.my. Check out its website at www.slopewatch.org.my.

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