Sunday, 2 November 2008


Q: You said at a recent climate change conference that before 2004, planners lived in a comfort zone. Why is that?
A: Before 2004, it was difficult to compare our country with others like the Philippines where they have strong typhoons. We have our fair share of disasters but not like the floods in Bangladesh. Ours are smaller, or flash floods. We are in a sheltered platform.

Q: Planners always said these were one-off things. Why should we pay attention to them?
A: We went to Aceh after the tsunami. It made us wonder if it could have happened to Malaysia. Sure, about 200,000 people died in Aceh and only 68 in Malaysia, but a life is a life. We have to do something. We've addressed floods to some extent in our planning but have never gone into detail like drawing up flood-risk maps. Then comes climate change and everything goes haywire, like the floods in Johor. With that awareness, we started Lupar (land-use planning for assessment of risk) which was designed to raise awareness among planners and get them to include risk management in their planning. As a result, two new local plans which are coming out soon will be more specialised.

Q: What's different about these plans?
A: The local plans for Kota Kuala Muda in Kedah and Kota Tinggi in Johor will each have a chapter on geo-hazards, with risk maps included. . The Kuala Muda plan will be up for public viewing early next year while the Kota Tinggi plan will be out before year end. We will look at all the measurements of the physical and biological impact of the tsunami and the areas it inundated, and categorise the areas according to the acuity of these risks. For the first time in a local plan, we will have areas marked high, medium or low risk in relation to a hazard. This is required under the Hyogo Framework of Action, of which Malaysia is a signatory. It requires member countries to make disaster planning a concern and to spell out measures to address disasters.

Q: What other new information will the plans have?
A: There are modelling and simulation to see which areas will be affected by floods and the extent of the damage. We don't have much to spend on modelling so we're recommending that this portion be taken up by technical agencies with the expertise and money. Modelling is expensive. It runs into millions. Consultants are now doing it for us, but we feel that isn't the way forward. For these two plans, we've also had focus group discussions with local communities to fill in information gaps, like which areas were inundated during the tsunami or floods and how high the water rose. We ask whether they think their house should be relocated and if yes, where, or where do they think their reban (chicken coop) should be placed? If they want to stay in the area in spite of the risks, then we have to think of other measures to deal with the hazards. In Kota Tinggi, we are proposing that on flood-prone lands committed to development, developers must raise buildings and make the ground level free of obstacles. Like a kampung house on stilts, the building is raised and cars can park underneath. If they can't do it, they have to be relocated. But this has financial and social costs so we suggest alternatives. All this will be built into our policies and plans and made public, which will make things more accountable. Everyone will know where the risk areas are and can comment on or object to them.

Q: Will there be repercussions for this?
A: Some repercussions may be a drop in land value but, overseas, people are told which areas are flood prone so that they can control development.

Q: Will these new aspects become a feature of all new local plans?
A: Yes. We are hoping these will become the templates for other local plans. Under the 10th Malaysia Plan, we hope to review all existing local plans and put in the measures for geo-hazards.

Q: How many local plans would you be reviewing?
A: About 140. But this will be done gradually. We have to work this out with the Department of Irrigation and Drain-age (DID) because it is studying the impact of climate change on flooding. We are working with it and the National Hydraulic Research Institute (Nahrim). They will pass their findings to us and we will convert that into land-use policies. That way, we don't have to spend thousands collecting our own information. They are the experts with the technology. We don't have that level of expertise.

Q: How will these plans help local authorities? What should they do with this information?
A: The local plans are not just legal documents but also public documents. The local authorities which previously may not have had guidance will now have, for the first time, a document that tells them which areas to develop, which areas should have less development and which are no-go areas.

Q: Is there enough information for us to do hazard maps and models for all local authority areas?
A: No. To simulate a flood situation, you need very accurate basic data. We need high-resolution contour maps. To get that, we need special satellite images. We've also conducted a geo-hazard study in land-use planning. We're coming out with development guidelines for areas susceptible to floods, fires and landslides first. When the study is finalised next June, it will tell local councils how to categorise hazards and how to identify areas that are prone to these problems. It will give them some measures according to the level of danger, for instance, in Category 1, what kind of development is recommended and what measures to take if they want to develop there. This will be fed into local plans. The local authorities will have a good guide on how to apply this information. We need Nahrim, Akademi Sains Malaysia, universities and other agencies to give their input.

Q: Will these two new plans be easy to understand for residents ?
A: Yes. The approach now is for user-friendly plans. If you have a piece of land in the district, you can look at the plan and it can tell you what the risks are.

Q: But the climate is unpredictable. After the guidelines are issued, how regularly will the information be updated?
A: The department will do this. If there is a request from the state, we will look at it. A review request can even come from the National Physical Planning Council chaired by the prime minister, or even from the cabinet if it sees that the situation on the ground has changed enough for a review. We will also listen to public feedback. In any case, we will review the plan every five years.

Q: This kind of information will affect land prices. If a direction for a review can come from the top, isn't there room for abuse? A politician who wants to jack up the value of an area might skew the review in his favour.
A: The information will be made public and people can question us on the categories. Probably the first question people will ask is: how sure are you that my land is Category 1 for floods? We will explain that the potential of it being flooded every five years is there. The checks and balances will come from the people. When we put up these documents for public views and objections, we're giving land-owners the chance to ask us. People may not want it to be so but if the government feels it is for their safety, then the land should be designated as such. The other thing we're looking into is the role of the insurance sector. If you still want to develop projects in these flood-prone areas, you'll have to pay higher premiums. If you look at other countries, geo-hazard areas are declared and gazetted. Anyone who wants to develop the area has to pay a higher premium that will compensate for when hazards occur or serve as a deterrent to building in a dangerous area. We could also add stringent measures for building in the area.

Q: When you start reviewing all existing local plans, you might find areas where there shouldn't have been any development, right?
A: Once an area is designated as a geo-hazard risk, then we'll consider options. If we want to build, should we raise the level of buildings? Or should we buy back the land and turn it into a park like they've done in Hawaii? Or should we relocate everyone? What will the costs be? It's really a question of whether we want to pay less now and more in the long run or the other way round.

Q: What if the review finds a neighbourhood that is prone to disasters?
A: They may have to relocate or we could take mitigative action action or realign the development. There are many measures but, in the worst-case scenario, people may have to move. Whatever the recommendation, it will be specific to the location. You can't have one plan to fit all areas.

Q: You've been talking mostly about floods. What about preparing for other disasters like earthquakes?
A: Yes, we will be looking at those in the 10th Malaysia Plan. Right now, we're only looking at floods, landslides and fires. Next, we'll look at earthquakes, tsunami and industrial disasters.

Q: Will the geo-hazard mapping also look at things like the many developments on reclaimed lands?
A: The National Physical Plan (NPP) doesn't encourage it but some states still go ahead and do it. Our policy still stands: reclamation should be the last resort. The NPP discourages high-density development on reclaimed land.

Q: Will the department also look into the ability of structures to withstand some of these geo-hazards that you are identifying?
A: We'll have to work with the Public Works Department (PWD) on that because it has a structural unit that looks at the effects of landslides, earthquakes, flood and wind resistance on structures.

Q: How will you convince state and local governments that this is important and that they have to follow it?
A: We're planning to present it at the National Physical Planning Council, which is chaired by the prime minister. All the chiefs of states and heads of departments will be there. This is something that we have to follow and we'd get their commitment. Then we'll monitor, check the developments, build public awareness and have periodic reporting on compliance levels.

Q: If there's non-compliance?
A: Then the states have got to tell us why.

Q: And by that time the public will know where development is ill-advised?
A: That, too. This is our new baby and we're excited. We don't know yet how the states are going to react. But I think after seeing what happened in Kota Tinggi, they'll all be for it. We hope that it'll even come to the stage where they'll be the ones advising us on where the evacuation routes should be if a tsunami came.

Q: Are we planning too far ahead? Some people say climate change and the extreme weather it promises will only be a problem 100 years from now.
A: We are actually way, way behind. In terms of disaster planning, we're behind Sri Lanka and the Philippines. They even have disaster-enactment scenarios.

Q: We're talking about things that are natural hazards, but what about man-made hazards?
A: That's why we must have an integrated way of doing things. Let's say if I'm building a building now, what're the effects of it downstream? Will it cause floods? Where? Through modelling, you can find out the level of density of development allowed. You'll have to run your land- use proposal, your density through a model to figure out the impact of it downstream. It's basically calibrating your development plan. It's not mandatory to do that now, but we must have that. We might, together with DID, develop such a system, so that it can be made mandatory for all future development proposals. So when you submit your development plan to the local or city council, the council and DID will run it through the model to see how it will impact the environment. We also have to change our procedures of planning approval. We're suggesting that all applications be submitted together with a history of floods in that area. And the local authority is encouraged to establish a databank that collects information on previous disasters in their area. Our culture of documentation is so low. We have to develop that.

Q: If my house is in a high-risk landslide category, but the council comes and does mitigation work, will my house be re-categorised?
A: Yes. We will review the categories from time to time.

Q: What other areas will you look at after Kota Tinggi and Kota Kuala Muda?
A: We will give priority to flood-prone areas, like Segamat, for instance. Landslide-prone areas are next on our list. The PWD has put together a unit that identifies vulnerable slopes along highways. We just need them to expand that to include other potential vulnerable areas, like settlements and areas around rivers.


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