A vigil in solidarity with the landslide victims was held at the Penang Town Hall this morning (see above) while inside the building the Penang Island City Council was holding its full council meeting. Later, three representatives from the vigil were allowed in to submit a memorandumto the major who said the council would also be probing the incident.
Disturbed by official comments in recent days, soil scientist Dr Kam Suan Pheng has sent in this commentary:
I refer to Penang executive council member Zairil Khir Johari’s comments, which highlights the issue of compartmentalised departmental jurisdiction and access to the Bukit Kukus construction site before the 19 October landslide, which killed nine and injured three workers.
In a 23 October press interview, Penang Drainage and Irrigation Department northeast district engineer Nortillawati Osman said her team had only checked on one site on 8 October. This was not the site involved in the landslide, as it was impossible to scour the entire hill expanse. She said her team members went to the highest vista to observe the entire site.
With present drone technology, would it not have been more effective to first deploy drones (known to be in the possession of the Penang Island City Council and perhaps other government departments) for an aerial survey of Bukit Kukus to identify hot spots of degraded slopes before going for ground checks?
For example this snapshot from the drone video posted on YouTube by Kelvin Chan in social media clearly shows very badly eroded spots like the one marked by the yellow ellipse above, and that is not far from the landslide location (red ellipse).
Aerial shots clearly show that the barren slopes have been allowed to be exposed to the elements long enough to result in the lunar-like landscape as highlighted by the yellow ellipse.
This is clear evidence of non-compliance of the project’s erosion and sediment control plan, which Zairil pointed out is under his portfolio’s jurisdiction. Action on this should have been taken much earlier, even before the last of the alerts by Penang Hills Watch, which was brought to his attention on 28 September 2018.
The issue of departmental jurisdiction seems to have come in the way of effective monitoring and enforcement of construction activities at Bukit Kukus.
Nortillawati was quoted as saying, “We did not go to the area where the landslide occurred or even where the kongsi (workers’ cabin) was as it was not within our jurisdiction.”
Zairil for his part said, “As far as I am concerned, under my jurisdiction, I can only check on the compliance of the project’s Erosion and Sedimentation Control Plan (ESCP)” while “city council member… also had the power to order the council to conduct checks on the site”.
The consequences of working within jurisdictive silos have exacted immeasurable costs on the environment and now human lives as well.
It was announced in the press on 22 March 2017 that the Penang government had set up a steering committee to launch ‘Ops Lumpur’ to monitor development activities that could contribute to floods and river pollution in the state. The state DID is the secretariat, while committee members comprise those from the local governments, state economic planning unit, state Public Works Department, Department of Environment and district engineers and officers. At the launching, the Penang DID deputy director S Ratna Rajah said the committee would make monthly surprise checks at construction sites starting the following month (ie April 2017).
It does not appear that Ops Lumpur has been able to carry out the monthly surprise checks as promised, considering the rampant scale of soil erosion that has caused mud flows at every major flash flood event last year and this year, culminating with the most recent landslide disaster at Bukit Kukus. From the press statements quoted above, it also does not appear that there has been coordination amongst the government agencies that are themselves members of the Ops Lumpur steering committee.
The need for more a better coordinated mechanism for monitoring construction activities, especially where hill-cutting is involved, and more stringent enforcement without fear and favour in Penang has never been more urgent than now.