Penang Hills Watch (PHW) extends our deepest condolences to the families and loved ones of the victims of the recent landslide disaster that struck the Father’s Organic Farm campsite at Batang Kali on 16 December.
In the wake of this landslide tragedy the chief minister of Penang announced (China Press, 18 December) the temporary closure of campsites in the state of Penang. While this is an important stop-gap measure to avoid campers being subjected to the risk of landslide disasters, it is even more critical to tackle the root cause of such disasters.
In the event of a major landslide, not only campers, but even more so, people who live and work in risk-prone areas will be exposed to the risk of injury and loss of life.
Penang, especially the island, has had more than its fair share of landslide incidents, several of which have resulted in loss of lives. A 2009 landslide hazard mapping exercise for Penang Island includes an inventory of 463 landslides from historical records over a 21-year period. These have not included the more recent major landslide disasters that have happened over the past decade.
The widespread landslides that occurred in the wake of the intense and prolonged rain of 4-5 November 2017 clearly indicate the environmental fragility of the naturally steep terrain of Penang’s hills as well as the high erosion risk of man-made slopes. The increasing expansion of building and road infrastructure development into hilly terrain has resulted in more cut-and-fill slopes that are invariably steeper than the natural slopes they replace.
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In his statement to the press on 18 December, the Penang chief minister gave an assurance that the state government has been restricting and controlling development on class III (25-35 degrees) and class IV (greater than 35 degrees) slopes, and its use of the “Penang Safety Guideline for Hill Site Development (second edition 2020)” which is a revised version of the 2012 guidelines.
It should be noted however that these guidelines have not been stringently enforced in the past, leading to several landslide incidents that could have been avoided.
The 21 October 2017 landslide tragedy that claimed 11 lives at the Granito project in Tanjung Bungah could have been avoided if there had been due diligence in complying with the 2012 safety guidelines. This site was case 1 highlighted in the first report of Penang Hills Watch to the Penang Island City Council on 31 December 2016 (In response, MBPP had said the site was being monitored)
On 5 November 2017 a high retaining wall supporting an embanked road in Tanjung Bungah collapsed. This retaining wall is associated with the Beverly Hills project which, according to a geological terrain map of the Minerals and Geoscience Department, is located on the boundary between a class III and a class IV slope
In June 2021 excessive rainfall run-off caused a flash flood of muddy water in front of the Surin Condominium in Tanjung Bungah. This was the consequence of cutting into a steep slope during the extension of Solok Tanjung Bungah along a 250ft contour. In fact, Penang Hills Watch had earlier reported on this case in its reports of 31 December 2016 and July 2020. The Penang Island City Council’s responses to these reports were that they were monitoring the situation. It was only after the June 2021 flash flood incidence that more proactive action was taken against the developer
Barely a year after the Granito landslide disaster, on 19 October 2018, another fatal landslide occured at the construction site of the state-owned Bukit Kukus ‘paired road’ project. Nine lives were sacrificed due to engineering and safety negligence – an obvious non-compliance of the 2012 safety guidelines
While compliance with safety guidelines during the construction period is important, it is not enough. To ensure slope safety in the long run, it is imperative to constantly monitor and maintain slopes. The Tun Sardon Road, built in the early 1980s to improve access from the lower Paya Terubong valley to Balik Pulau, is still fraught with slope failures and land slips.
Particularly in the face of climate change, whereby rainfall patterns have changed and intensified, it is crucial that existing high-risk hill slopes, both natural and man-made, are constantly monitored and maintained.
There are now modern technologies for effective and real-time monitoring of slope stability under differing rainfall conditions including satellite-based interferometric synthetic aperture radar, remote sensing using 3D laser scanning and air-borne light detection and ranging.
These technologies produce data at differing resolutions that can be used in Geographic Information Systems (GIS)-assisted engineering and hydrological modelling for better identification of high landslide-risk sites and targeting of appropriate mitigation measures.
It is commendable that, in the wake of the Batang Kali landslide disaster, the Perak government promptly issued a statement on 19 December that all high-risk slope areas in the state are being monitored as a definitive measure for landslide prevention.
Such a measure is an even greater imperative for Penang, given the higher density of population living closer to hilly terrain.
Penang Hills Watch calls upon the Penang state government to commit adequate and competent resources to enable not only stringent control over construction activities involving hill slopes but also effective monitoring, enforcement and maintenance of high-risk hill slopes. – PHW