Brave New World (The Star)
December 11, 2008
"The Bukit Antarabangsa landslide need not have happened. Laws to safeguard our hills are already in the statute books, only they were not invoked."
In the midst of yet another landslide tragedy, much has been said. The past Selangor Government vehemently denies any responsibility, while the present one says that scores of hillside developments were given the green light by the former.
Experts chip in about the possible causes and the best ways to prevent such disasters from happening again.
High-ranking politicians make statements about stopping any future projects while they go on walkabouts to show their concern.
None of this talk is going to bring back the departed or lessen the pain of those left behind. But the issue must be dealt with so that it is not repeated. We have had such disasters before, and it would appear that we have learnt nothing from them.
My question is simply this: Why should we have hillside housing anyway?
I have read about some developers saying there is a shortage of flat land upon which to build. I am not sure if this is a good enough reason.
From what I can see, be it on the slopes of Ulu Klang or the hills of Batu Ferringhi, no hillside development project is of the low-cost variety. The poor, the dispossessed, the urban settlers are surely the ones most in need of housing. Yet there are no low-cost flats looking down at us from above.
It seems to me that when homes are built on high land, they are built for the wealthy. This means the houses and apartments cost more and the developers reap higher profits. The reason to build in the hills therefore appears to be based on economic gain and not some sort of virtuous desire to house the homeless.
The highlands are important to us for many reasons. They provide a water catchment area and thus are vital for our water supply. This ability to absorb rain water also means that they play a role in flood prevention.
Furthermore, it is harder for soil erosion to occur (which can then lead to inland water pollution) if our hills are dense with vegetation.
We ought to remember also that the world’s climate is changing. Our weather patterns are not the same as they used to be. There is strong evidence to suggest that although our average annual rainfall remains constant, the intensity of our rainfall has changed. This means that when it rains, it does so in intense bursts in such volume that it poses a greater risk than ever before. Uncovered hill land is becoming more and more vulnerable.
So why should we allow our highlands to be destroyed, for whatever reason? And considering the human cost of such development, can we honestly say it is worth it?
I suggest that it is not. Any development on our hills in the future must only be allowed if it is absolutely necessary. We have the laws to control it if the state governments so wish to invoke them.
The Land Conservation Act gives tremendous power to the state governments to declare land as hill land and to control or prevent completely any sort of development on it. The Town and Country Planning Act empowers the local planning authorities to designate certain areas as being off limits to development.
The power is there, it is up to the governments involved to use it.
And if it doesn’t use it, or is negligent in its use of it, then it should be held liable. Ouster clauses which absolve local authorities of any legal responsibility like those found in the Street Drainage and Building Act have to be done away with.
It is simply not good enough to point fingers at the developers. It is true that they are the ones who would like to build wherever they can make a dollar. They are motivated by profit; that is the nature of the beast.
But what ought to be remembered is that we the people did not elect them. We elected our state and federal governments, and one of their jobs is to ensure that any sort of development does not harm us.
The developers can only do what they are allowed to do. They do not dictate the type of development we should have. At least, they should not be dictating it. It is our elected officials and the local authorities who determine this.
Is it too much to ask that they live up to that responsibility so that we don’t have to read any more stories of needless deaths? I certainly don’t think so.