Penang needs flood mitigation project, rethink development plans

 |Sep 21, 2017

Twenty years ago, whenever it rained heavily in Penang, I remember my family and I would be preparing for floods as we were then living in the lowlands of Jalan Datuk Keramat.

The only difference was we could afford to take our time as the water level would not rise so rapidly and there was no such thing as flash floods.

We never would blame anyone, especially God, for the floods or rain and accepted things as they were as we were indeed living not far away from a river that flooded each time it poured.

I remember how I enjoyed playing in the flood waters along with the other children and how our parents and grandparents would idle around waiting for the flood to subside. We did not complain as we watched the drains and rivers overflow, sending gushes of clear water into our homes.

And there was no rapid development that could be blamed for the flash floods. Back then, the only high rise building was Komtar.

People living on higher grounds such as Bayan Baru, Balik Pulau, Bayan Lepas, Teluk Bahang, Air Itam would never be heard complaining of such a thing as flash floods. If they had, then the whole of Penang would have sunk.

Fast forward to 2017, Friday last week to be exact, these places were all immersed in flash flood waters that was murky and muddy and Penang saw one of the worst, if not the worst flood in history with flood water reaching the roofs of many homes! And yes, many had thought Penang was going to sink!

More than 100 homes were affected, with hundreds of families evacuated from their homes as water levels had been rising at dangerous levels according to the Fire and Rescue Department.

Basically Penang was crippled on that day as flood waters choked every corner of the streets of Penang. Many cars were also damaged after they were submerged in flood water and some were completely destroyed by landslides.

And today, almost exactly a week after the incident, many are fearful and worried of a repeat of last week’s incident as it has been raining since yesterday.

Sure, the state government was swift to take action including site-visits, working closely with government agencies to clear flood water mess and even gave a one-off RM400 contribution to each of the affected families. But how many times will they have to do that each time such a catastrophe hits?

Is it not better for the money to be used for flood mitigation projects instead of waiting for the Federal Government which has claimed it did give money to Penang to solve that problem.

Is it not better to spend money on flood mitigation projects for the rakyat of Penang instead of spending an exorbitant RM305 million on a feasibility study for the undersea tunnel project?

And what is the use of having the Penang Transport Master Plan (PTMP) which entails another billions of ringgit if the more pertinent issue is not being addressed?

You can have the best roads and public transport systems but it will all be useless when mother nature unleashes her fury because you have harmed her in your pursuit of developing Penang.

She might just wash away all your modern and state-of-the-art projects in just a blink of an eye. And all your network of highways, roads and public transportation system will be meaningless then.

Having spoken to environment specialists and experts in town planning recently, they all agreed that there is an extensive pace of development in Penang.

What worries them most is the onslaught of hillslope development and land reclamation projects to make way for more homes to be built.

For one thing, hillslope developments would mean mother nature would be affected with trees being cut, lands being cleared and the reclaimation causing an absence of water catchment areas when it rains, which also results in landslides and fast overflowing sea and rivers each time in rains.

A case in point are the massive flash floods that environmentalists in Penang believe have been worsened by continued deforestation on the island. While large swathes of the island were recently submerged under flood water after heavy downpours, several communities in Tanjung Bungah and Paya Terubong suffered from mudslides.

A well known local conservationist argues that this was the result of soil erosion exacerbated by forest clearing and development, which has exposed several local communities to the risk of greater damage from seasonal floods.

For SM Mohamed Idris of Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM) all the flood mitigation measures will prove ineffective and inadequate as the root causes of flash floods and landslides, which stem from increased water run-off from removal of trees and hill-cutting failed to be addressed.

One thing is for sure, the Penang government needs to rethink development projects and must genuinely be more environment-friendly by taking measures to protect all hills, plant more trees and truly ensure sustainable development.

Such preventive measures will be especially important in the face of climate change that is bound to bring increasingly erratic weather patterns.

One question that cannot escape the mind each time it rains in Penang is, how prepared are the authorities in terms of adaptation plans to cope with more extreme rainfalls which will happen more frequently?

Will Penang emulate other countries it looks up to in taking adaptation measures seriously or will it still submerge itself in more drama and let everyone believe it’s just an act of God, or the previous government and the current Federal Government?

As Mohamed Idris has said, it is high time to learn from our mistakes, take corrective measures urgently and have proper adaptation plans in place.