Getting it right with hillslopes

IN the last 10 years, high-rise residential blocks have been mushrooming in cities such as Kuala Lumpur, Petaling Jaya, Penang Island, Ipoh and Johor Baru.

They cater to the increasing urban population as land is scarce and landed properties are expensive.

Currently, high-rise buildings are getting taller, some are as high as 50 storeys. On the positive side, condominiums offer magnificent views from their balconies and occupants get a sense of security, since they are often gated with security guards.

Although the owners have to pay maintenance fees, the amount is not as much as having to pay for security in bungalows.

Besides low-cost and low-medium-cost flats, there are bigger and more expensive apartments and condominiums.

In Penang, they are being built across the island, from the beaches to, increasingly, the slopes of its hills.

In light of the Tanjung Bungah landslide tragedy on Oct 21, during which 11 workers died, we need to ask: has Penang Island been developing too rapidly, and in the wrong places?

That landslide was the worst ever for Penang, and considering the frequent flash floods, we can expect worse tragedies.

Trying to assign blame after the accident will not prevent further tragedies. Proactive measures are needed to prevent their recurrence. A state commission of inquiry will be set up to investigate the tragedy.

There is obviously a need for more stringent monitoring and tighter safety guidelines on development on sloping sites in areas such as Tanjung Bungah, Batu Ferringhi, Air Itam, Paya Terubung and Sungei Ara to ensure they do not pose any danger to the public. Environmental Impact Assessment reports are required for all hillside and environmentally fragile sites.

Following the tragic landslide incident, some organisations have voiced out against hillside development. Some civic groups have been fighting for more than two decades asking the state authorities to stop such development.

Penang Forum, a civil society of about 20 non-governmental organisations, has for some time been calling for a halt to hillside development. Furthermore, there are local councillors who have called for slowing down these developments.

Khoo Salma Nasution, a new councillor, in her adjournment speech during the full council meeting on Oct 30, urged the council to impose a moratorium on hillside development and reassess every hillside and hillslope development project.

She has also asked the council to reaffirm all policies, processes and guidelines to protect our hills. She said that the council should have planning rules that follow the Penang State Structure Plan for development projects, taking into account the interest of the public, stakeholders and the environment.

This is a good proposal. Besides the safety aspect for each hillside development, we also need to make sure that those developments taken together fit with the state planning and development visions for the future.

It is also important to note that all property developers have to engage their own private town planners, architects and engineers to prepare layout and development plans to be sent to the local authorities for permission to build houses, shops, hotels or condominiums.

The state's investigation of the Tanjung Bungah tragedy should tell us whether those plans were adequate, and whether they considered the possibility of a landslide.

Some others also have asserted that the Tanjung Bungah project site was not on land classified as hillslope, even then, its proximity to hillslopes and a quarry should have been a warning to possible accidents.

Hillside development will always be an issue in cities that have hills and mountains. In Rio de Janeiro, many poor residents live on its hillsides.

They have been pushed into risky zones because of development pressures.

In Los Angeles, some of the most luxurious houses and exclusive neighbourhoods are on hillsides.

Even there, as landslides in the Hollywood Hills show, more stringent rules and wealth cannot stop unpredictable environmental events.

In Penang, we are blessed with hills that offer lush greenery and beautiful scenery.

We must not take these for granted.

Setting up proper procedures and policies, and making such hillside development a key consideration of the structure plan, will make sure that these areas will remain both sites of careful and safe development, and resources of public good.

Datuk Dr Goh Ban Lee is interested in urban governance, housing and urban planning. Comments: