Thursday, 25 October 2018

Letter to the Editor: Hill Slope Development Comes With Many Environmental Risks


 The Bukit Kukus landslide tragedy is a grim reminder that hill slope development comes with many environmental and safety risks. Hill slope development causes erosion, habitat loss and air, water and noise pollution. It threatens wildlife, forests, water security, and soil integrity and stability. 

The Malaysian Cabinet had already drawn up a set of guidelines in 2009 prohibiting development on, inter alia, slopes exceeding 35 degrees, and slopes between 15-35 degrees showing signs of soil instability, erosion or other vulnerabilities. The Bukit Kukus tragedy involved an elevated road on a hill slope with a gradient reported to be 60-90 degrees. 

 The authorities are not unaware of the risks arising from, or the laws and guidelines in place in relation to, hill slope development. The guidelines include the National Slope Master Plan 2009 – 2023 issued by the Public Works Department, while the laws include the Land Conservation Act 1960, Environmental Quality Act 1974, Town and Country Planning Act 1976, and Street, Drainage and Building Act 1974. This clearly shows that there is no shortage of studies, guidelines, regulations and laws in Malaysia pertaining to hill slope development. What is lacking is the political will to enforce these laws and guidelines and to ensure the safety of people and the environment or the sustainability of the project. 

Blaming a massive landslide on rainy weather is irresponsible. Clearly the tragedy is not caused by merely rain and gravity, but corruption, apathy, irresponsibility and a willingness to cut corners and create wiggle room where there should be none. Intact land does not just spontaneously break off and descend on homes and roads when saturated with rainwater. If that were the case, then entire mountain ranges would be flattened annually during the monsoon season. 

Fatal landslides in Malaysia keep recurring because local and state authorities are willing to approve development projects on hill slopes, especially when given the assurance that mitigation measures, no matter how minimal and negligible, would be taken. However, no retaining wall or terrace can mitigate the adverse effects of deforestation, destruction of watershed areas, overdevelopment and mining, quarrying and construction activities near slopes. 

The Highland Towers collapse in 1993, Bukit Antarabangsa landslide in 2008, Hulu Langat landslide in 2011 and Tanjung Bungah landslide in 2017 all precede this latest incident, but decision-makers responded with words of regret and sympathy when strong policies and strict enforcement would have been more effective and would have prevented further tragedies. A prohibition on hill slope development on slopes exceeding a certain gradient should be treated as such, and not merely as a temporary freeze on hill slope development until public outrage simmers down. 

No development or construction activity should ever take place at a site in which the state and local authorities are unable to guarantee full compliance with safety guidelines or criteria. The profits to be gained from authorizing hill slope development work are paid for by construction workers and local residents with their safety and lives. Wildlife, rivers, forests and other natural entities pay the price with their existence. 

There must be a nationwide moratorium on all hill slope development. Existing projects must be reviewed, mitigation measures carried out and laws strictly and transparently enforced. The parties responsible for this fatal landslide must be held to account. Previously forested areas that had been cleared for hill slope development must be rehabilitated. The cost of hill slope development on the environment and communities is simply too high to be justified any longer.