Cutting corners on slope management just not worth it

By Chan Mei Ling and Aniza Damis

FROM 1961 to 2007, Malaysia recorded some 440 cases of landslides, 25 of which were critical. More than 570 lives were lost, 140 people injured and 4,300 vehicles damaged.

The total economic loss set the country back by nearly RM3 billion.

Data from the Public Works Department (PWD) showed that the most active period took place in the 1990s, with 1995 and 1996 chalking up the highest number of landslides -- 68 and 71 cases respectively.

The National Slope Master Plan, Malaysia's first roadmap on slope management, indicated rapid development as a likely catalyst.

It also states that unrelenting increase in the demand for residential, commercial and industrial property has raised prices to the extent that development even in risky zones has become an attractive proposition.

The real impetus for the development of guidelines came from the collapse of Tower 1 of the Highland Towers in Ulu Klang, Selangor, in late 1993.

"The Highland Towers tragedy was our first lesson. It changed the way we developed our hills after that," says geotechnical expert Mohd Taufik Haron.

There were already laws governing development such as the Local Government Act, Town and Country Planning Act 1976 and Land Conservation Act 1960, but hillslope development policies that came out the year after the tragedy were the first guidelines produced by the government.

Among the decisions made was to form the Special Malaysia Disaster Assistance and Rescue Team (SMART).

Over the years, many more policies were drawn up and departments established -- often in direct response to disasters.

For example, the rock slide at the New Klang Valley Expressway (NKVE) near Bukit Lanjan, Selangor, in late 2003, which led to a six-month closure, triggered the formation of the Slope Engineering Branch (CKC) under the PWD in early 2004.

The branch was to manage, control and monitor all slopes in hillside areas.

Full elimination of slope failures is impossible but the impact from failures can be reduced, says senior director of CKC Datuk Prof Dr Ashaari Mohamad.

"There's no such thing as stopping landslides from happening as they are natural occurrences. What we can do is to minimise them and avoid casualties."

In recent years, technical studies and more stringent rules gained prominence.

The Selangor government and Kuala Lumpur City Hall also updated their guidelines to include more technical analysis so as to make more well-informed decisions when approving projects.

Selangor, for one, imposed a ban on Class III and above hillside development, bringing down the permissible gradient for slope construction from 35 degrees and below to not more than 25 degrees.

The country has certainly been progressive in terms of policy enhancement, says Taufik, who heads the geotechnical forensic unit in Kumpulan Ikram Sdn Bhd.

"Ten years ago, there were no geotechnical engineers to make assessments on slopes. Today, any submission for development has to include a geotechnical report which covers a breadth of parameters, such as geological factors, rainfall, vegetation, groundwater table, suction and drainage."

Disaster management expert Professor Dr Roslan Zainal Abidin believes Malaysia can further raise the bar.

"We have good laws to start off with, but that has to be followed up with good implementation and maintenance.

"The importance of maintenance has not been pressed upon enough."

The PWD is responsible for the maintenance of slopes along national roads, while the rest of country comes under the jurisdiction of local authorities, developers and private owners.

The public must also play their part by alerting the authorities when they come across early signs of a possible landslide, such as tension cracks on road surface, movements, tilting of trees and water infiltration.

Ashaari notes that there appears only to be a seasonal interest in landslides and slopes, usually triggered by a spectacular landslide like what happened to the Hidayah Madrasah Al-Taqwa orphanage last week -- and lasts only a short while.

The division ran education advertorials in newspapers late last year and early this year as part of its campaign to make people aware of slope safety and the role that the public can play in keeping tabs on the slopes around them. But, Ashaari laments, the timing was wrong.

"We put pictures, photographs, graphics, explanations but people don't read it. They go to (articles on singer) Datuk Siti Nurhaliza. Because landslides and slopes are no fun!"

The only problem is that the division has run out of funds for its public awareness campaign. Having spent RM5 million over three years on educational advertorials, posters, pamphlets, and even T-shirts and badges, there is now no budget left for public awareness campaigns this year.

Cost is also another impediment in the setting up of a detailed slope inventory.

"In Hong Kong, there are over 40,000 slopes under the government's supervision. Every one of them is numbered and has its risk assessed.

"All states in Malaysia should have a zoning category like that. Without an inventory, we don't know what's out there.

"So it's hard to set up an early warning mechanism," says Roslan, dean of the School of Engineering and Technology Infrastructure in the Kuala Lumpur Infrastructure University College (KLIUC)

So far, the CKC has inventoried most of the slopes in hotspots such as Ulu Kelang, Selangor; Penang; and Canada Hill, Miri, says Ir Dr Che Hassandi Abdullah, head of CKC's Research and Development Unit.

However, Ashaari says it is not very feasible to have a detailed inventory for the whole country.

"The study in Ulu Kelang took more than 20 consultants one year to cover just 100 sq km. And it cost about RM5 million.

"The government gives us money only for critical areas."

Roslan says while the high cost in slope maintenance poses a real problem, it is one that should be tackled.

"We have no choice. Lives are at stake." -New Straits Times