THE astounding natural beauty of limestone hills are among some of Malaysia’s most popular tourist attractions – the Batu Caves in Selangor, for instance attracts thousands of visitors.
Perak, especially, has an abundance of such limestone hills. Even from the highway one can see the scenic greenery atop the hills and the shadows of caverns, some of which were formed over tens of thousands of years.
However, beauty sometimes comes with peril. Following a limestone hill collapse in November last year, a geomorphologist made a statement in the media that “even rainfall can lead to natural dissolution of rocks thus weakening the structure of limestone walls”.
Obviously, as has been highlighted many times in the past by experts, these beautiful, scenic hills that may be home to an array of unique flora and fauna may also pose a danger to humans and property due to the presence of extensive joints and fractures within their structures.
Apart from Selangor’s Batu Caves, limestone hills are very much synonymous with Perak, more specifically, Ipoh. The significance of these hills in my context is that their locations are close to roads, residential areas, tourist attractions as well as structures that have been built, legally or illegally, in caves or at foothills for various purposes, which often house occupants.
The tragic incident mentioned earlier, which occurred on Nov 10,2020, was a landslide that killed two people. The Perak Mineral and Geoscience Department was quoted as saying that “heavy rains had weakened the residual soil on top of the limestone walls”, causing the structure to collapse onto the place the victims were staying in.
This incident really shook me up because I had planned to take a break in the same area at the time of the tragedy but had to cancel when two family members were exposed to Covid-19.
The incident and what had been reported in various media prompted me to do some research on tragedies involving limestone hills. It was indeed shocking for me to discover quotes like this one by experts, that “limestone hills in the tropics often form steep-sided walls due to natural collapse. This process can be accelerated when there are solutions (rainwater) in the foothills. When rainwater flows into rock intercepts and natural dissolution occurs, the cracks between rocks widen, eventually triggering rock collapses”.
It was also reported that there have been almost 20 cases of natural limestone rock-falls around Ipoh alone, including the November 2020 incident. The worst tragedy was in 1973 in Gunung Cheroh, which killed 42 people. In 2009, a rockfall in a cave temple caused injuries and one death, not forgetting property damage.
Knowing what we know, knowing that limestone hills can be ticking time bombs as it were, the November 2020 incident should be the final straw to push the Perak government into taking necessary action. Merely ordering the relevant departments to monitor every risky limestone hill, especially those located near residential areas, may not be enough.
Why approve the building of temples, houses and other structures in caverns or at the foot of limestone hills in the first place? Even if these structures were built illegally, knowing that they exist and have been occupied (including by visitors) for so many years does not mean that they should be allowed to continue existing.
There may be other limestone hills that pose threats to lives in other states, but my focus is on the Ipoh area because of the sheer number of tragedies over the years and the close call that my family and I have had.
Do we have to wait for more loss of lives before sterner and more decisive actions are taken? Are those in power not worried about the dangers and potential loss of lives?