Pearlhill Townhouses perched precariously on a steep hill-slope: Plans were approved for development on the slopes directly below
Penang residents, especially those along the northern coastline, continue to worry about projects on steep hill-slopes. I received the following from a blog reader, who also included a well-reasoned and articulate letter to the Penang Chief Minister from the Management Committee of Mt Evergreen Phase 1 (reproduced further below).
We are owners and residents of a string of four blocks of 87 apartment units perched on the side of Pearl Hill, Penang. About a year ago the previous State government approved the building of apartment blocks right below our properties. This part of Pearl Hill has slopes categorised as class 3, that is, more than 25 degrees with some localised sections in excess of 35 degrees.
The proposed development will cut away two-thirds of the trees. Blasting is bound to be undertaken, as huge rocks – some as big as cars – are evident in the landscape of the hill. Cracks have appeared both on the public road serving our residences as well as on our walls, indicating possible potential slope failure.
We wrote the following letter to YAB Lim Guan Eng, the Chief Minister of Penang soon after the Bukit Antarabangsa tragedy. We want the approval withdrawn. We cannot risk having the development proceed, even if the building work is to be monitored for the reasons given in our letter to the Chief Minister of Penang, reproduced below.
YAB Lim Guan Eng
Chief Minister of Penang
13 December 2008
Development on Hill Slopes
As all Malaysians, we were horrified to hear of the recent landslide at Bukit Antarabangsa, and dismayed that, so many years after Highland Towers, these loss of precious lives and properties continue. It is all the more lamentable because they could have been avoided.
We read with interest and concern the recent press statements you made in response to the tragedy. Concern because you seemed to have made light of the Prime Minister’s call for a stop to development on slopes. Politics aside, we had been heartened by it, and though we reserve our cynicism that things will not change, his statement seemed to us a national clarion call to reason.
In contrast to your own statement, read what YB Elizabeth Wong says in her blog, in an article called “Bukit Antarabangsa Landslide : Bitter Vindication”, on 7 December 2008;
“We heartened that finally, after 8 months of battling the housing industry alone, that the Federal Government has come on to our side to give Selangor, both the moral and policy support it needs, with both the PM and DPM calling for all hillslope development permits nationwide to be cancelled.”
We had been encouraged and cheered by the Selangor State Government’s ban, soon after they assumed office, on development on sensitive slopes. We waited with bated breath for a similar pronouncement from the new Penang Government, and so far have been disappointed.
Penang’s position seems to be to emulate Hong Kong, forgetting that while our total land areas might be similar, their population of 7 million far exceeds our island’s 678,000. At 6303 persons per sq kilometer, Hong Kong is the fourth densest place on the planet. And most of Hong Kong is mountainous and hilly, so they build from absolute necessity. Even so, their own official position on building on hill slopes is summed up thus: “The strategy for dealing with natural terrain landslide hazards in Hong Kong has been to avoid, as far as possible, new developments in vulnerable areas.” [ “Geotechnical Engineering”, Ken K S Ho, K S Li ]
Malaysia is not like Hong Kong in many crucial ways. For one thing, our geologies are different. Theirs is mostly solid granite, while ours is mostly weathered rock with a high propensity for water saturation. Our year-round high humidity and constant rains weather rocks differently.
We are also different from Hong Kong in the very important way of our resources, both financial as well as human. To avoid conflicts of interest, it would be imperative that government departments be charged with your new tasks, not professionals in the industry. Hong Kong draws from a vast pool of government experts. Their departments have not been crafted from decades of dubious official policies, while many of ours operate in a culture of institutionalised complacency, mediocrity and maybe even incompetence. And corruption.
Days before the tragedy, residents in Bukit Antarabangsa had made known to the authorities that some 8 trees had fallen on the slopes, and that someone’s retaining wall was issuing water, and his badminton court was flooded. In nearly all cases of landslides in Malaysia and the attendant death toll, there is that same repeated story of reports having been made.
We enclose some recent photographs which show cracks on a road in Pearl Hill, between nos. 43, 45, Puncak Bukit Mutiara Satu, and a project being built on slopes. We had written to the relevant departments as long ago as 2006 about the appearance of cracks on this and other roads here. Geotechnical engineers say tension cracks on roads are evidence of slope movement, and might be precursor to slope failure. As far as we know, nothing has been done, and the cracks have worsened.
Unlike Hong Kong, we have never ever had any maintenance done on our slope developments. We have never ever had slope audits and regular inspections. And enforcement on on-going slope works is far-lacking or non-existent. So it is necessary, indeed vital, to have that commission of landslide experts that you have initiated, for on-going projects and maintenance reasons.
But you cannot rely on industry players to help formulate your policies on the matter. There are vested interests. And the experts don’t always get things right; disaster struck despite a RM1.6 million contract to solely monitor geological conditions including earth movements in the Bukit Antarabangsa area.
Were geotechnical consultants not involved in the huge retaining wall that collapsed in Jalan Semantan, just 2 days before Bukit Antarabangsa? Even Putrajaya was not spared, 22 March 2007.
Despite these and dozens more cases, there is a certain proclivity to believe that modern engineering, applied assiduously enough, can safely tame slopes, hills and mountains with mathematical exactitude. In reality, geotechnical literature abounds with the language of uncertainty: geological risk, geotechnical risk, parameter uncertainties, model uncertainties, human uncertainties, hazard models, societal risks, quantitative risk analysis [QRA], population and vulnerability factors, assessed risk level, acceptable risk level, interim risk guidelines [IRG], probability of death, potential loss of life [PLL]. [ref: “Geological Uncertainty and Geotechnical Risk Determination”, by J L Knill, and other sources]
Quoting J L Knill:
“Ground conditions are always uncertain… [There is] a fundamental and continuing inability in engineering practice to understand geological uncertainty. It is a telling conclusion that these reviews, although fully acknowledging the importance of geological risk, add little to its fuller understanding.”
In Hong Kong, major emphasis is always placed on trying to understand, evaluate and minimise risks to human lives and properties, but it is a science of many assumptions and variables :
Individual Risk [IR] = f x P (run-out) x P (width) x V, where f is the frequency of occurrence of hazard, P (run-out) is the probability of run-out of certain distance, P (width) is the width probability of the landslide, and V is the vulnerability of the outdoor and indoor population accounting for the time of day.
Societal risk results are presented as PLL and fN curves.
PLL = IR x N, where IR is individual risk and N is the population likely to be affected by the landslide.
N = population x OZP area affected [Outline Zoning Plans]
We attach some photographs of our houses on the slopes of Pearl Hill. It is obvious how precarious the terrain and buildings are, but because the approving authorities trust in the infallibility of engineers, plans have been approved for development on the slopes directly below us. Much of the slopes will be shorn of trees and cut. There is no consideration of variables and uncertainties, no need for QRA, P, IR, V, fN and PLL, just theoretical exactitudes.
In YB Wong’s same article, she points out: “Selangor became the first and only state in the Federation to have complied with the Federal Town and Country Planning Department’s “Total Planning Guidelines” 1997 (2nd edition, 2001) which states that no housing development should be allowed on 25 degrees and above gradient slopes. “.
Penang still allows building on slopes up to 35 degrees, or “critical” slopes. One would have thought that there is an urgent and pressing rationale for Penang’s green hills, even more than Selangor, to be preserved. We depend so much on tourism, and Unesco’s heritage citing can only be enhanced by preservation of her natural resources as well.
In defending the Selangor Government’s position against that of developers, YB Iskandar Abdul Samad writes in his blog, “Bukit Antarabangsa : A govt must do what is right and not what is popular”, 9 December 2008.
The irony is that the general populace in Penang wants her green hills preserved. It would be both right and popular, that the State Government of Penang to revisit those policies which would have our lush hills turned into mountains of concrete.
Ultimately, though, it is about people – their lives, loved ones, limbs and properties. YB Wong says succinctly, “We ask that ‘People’ be put ahead of ‘Profits’.”
Is human life worth any less in this State, that there can be such a glaring discrepancy in the official positions of both these Pakatan governments?
Hong Kong clearly emphasises our weaknesses and has lessons to learn from. On the broader matter of policy, we humbly urge you to reconsider your faith in the government departments, in engineers and the uncertain science of geotechnics. Please follow Selangor.
Management Committee (Perbadanan Pengurusan Mt Evergreen Fasa 1)
Attached : Pic of our homes at Mt Evergreen Fasa 1