Flood calamity: It’s not just about heavy rainfall!

A high tide, rising sea levels, siltation of rivers and failure in river management contributed to the disaster

Massive Klang Valley floods 2021

We have witnessed regular, if not annual, flash floods over the years. In fact, we were told to expect one at any time.

But the one we faced in Selangor last weekend and what happened in the days after, shocked the nation. It was reminiscent of the January 1971 Kuala Lumpur floods, and it seemed as if we were totally unprepared.

It was not the supposedly rapid response teams that took charge of serious life-and-property-saving measures on site. Instead, it was good-natured local Malaysians from all ethnic groups as well as migrants who first responded. Others responded to call for help from the various MPs in Klang, Segambut and elsewhere.

The national political leadership and, more so, the civil service, especially the National Disaster Management Agency (Nadma), appear to have failed miserably.

Prime ministers, chief ministers and even MPs come and go, but it is the civil service that remains to ensure that the public services in all their forms, including the rapid response teams, operate. The political bosses largely depend and follow what the professionals on the subject dictate.

At least, that is how it was supposed to be. The civil service do have valid grouses but seldom stand their ground. That is how the civil service name came about.

The netizens’ outburst of anger, while understandable, is misplaced. It is not that the ruling politicians are not to blame. A large part of the blame still lies with the ruling politicians, in that the civil service grew mediocre a long time ago, starting in the 1980s, from the bottom up.

They failed to focus on the technical skill sets required for the development, operational management and upkeep of the drainage and irrigation apparatus – specifically, the storm water drainage and river management systems. It is totally related.

They were told of the lost pumping sets and failed generators required for the operation of sluice gates at critical irrigation structures, eg Taman Sri Muda. If Nadma did not know that then, what good is it being in existence? Were all those expensive evacuation boats bought for politicians to use?

Only incompetence can be the source of the delayed response, especially as Nurul Izzah Anwar and others had warned the government of impending severe floods. Floods at these times are also a known regular annual affair.

Nadma, set up after the 2015 flash floods, was put under the charge of a ruling party politician. His name did not even turn up in the media in the days that followed the latest floods. He surfaced only to retort that he was still in charge – except that the dirty work of being in charge of the Selangor floods allegedly lay with the state menteri besar. How touching! Or should it be how awesome a job responsibility?

They know no shame. A three-day delay resulted in at least 17 deaths in Selangor, now standing at 38 nationwide, with more reported missing – plus unascertained hundreds of millions of ringgit of lost and damaged public and private property.

That nomination of the head of Nadma itself was a disaster. A government that makes decisions like this does not know how to do its basic job. What Nadma needs is hands-on expertise on the subject so that it can ask the right questions and follow up on the state’s preparedness measures prior to potential flood times. It should have been ready to spring rapid response teams into action on Friday, 17 December.

A political head with no professional operational management expertise and current mediocre technical capability support would only end up pointing fingers at anything other than himself rather than what he had failed to do. Apologies? None forthcoming. An apology is a sign of strong character, but the political elite do not believe this.

Didn’t we hear our PM explaining why rapid response teams could not help Taman Sri Muda residents in distress early enough. The flood victims were camped on the roof of a surau, extremely visible, but the rescue teams, in the words of Ismail Sabri Yaakob, apparently failed to locate them because the street names were submerged! The PM trusted this ‘bull’ story. I rest my case.

It was left to Malaysian civil society groups and others to jump in to help, however possible, with their own resources within hours, while the nation’s valuable resources were idle for over three days.

The minister responsible was apparently overseas on leave – and remained not heard of as of 23 December – perhaps celebrating his 90% KPI rating. Sorry, I stand with the people not salaried ministers.

All this is something that can be resolved with a concerted effort, but only if there is the political and civil service will to do so. But that’s another story.

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We will continue to hear more of the same, unless a professional is tasked with the job with full authority and reporting responsibility to the PM instead of a politician who would probably direct aid to his or her preferred segment of society.

It is exasperating for the environment and water minister to blame flood victims for not taking government warnings seriously. Really? What did he mean? That victims should have evacuated themselves with essentials belongings – to where? He stopped his brilliant piece before he could come to that bit.

What we have largely failed to discuss are the major structural causes of the permanent damage to the natural habitat over the last six decades. This damage has taken place in our frenzy to increase and modernise the built habitat, to meet national requirements, especially since the 1980s. In contrast, Singapore has done what we failed miserably to do.

Two critical issues

Hydrological cycle

This is something that future generations should be educated about and made aware of.

Figure 1 – Surface runoff with varying ground permeability – Graphic credit: A Drainage and Irrigation Department paper on Solving Urban Flooding Through Sustainable Storm Water Management, by Dr Md Nasir Mohd Nor
Figure 2 – The urban water cycle

There are two critical areas (see below) that have failed the test of a successful cohabitation of the built habitat with the natural environment. A serious mismatch of the natural and the built habitat has upset the balance in maintaining a healthy natural habitat.

The hydrological cycle explains all this very well. We have allowed massive development of city and town-built habitats without a balanced approach that ensures that the natural habitat is retained close to the built habitat. This is the first shortfall of our development strategy over the last six decades.

We have stressed building bigger and taller to announce our entry into first world status. One former prime minister even proclaimed Malaysia had reached first world, developed status. Wonder where he is now.

A more complete discussion of this will involve wider issues, ie urban planning and storm water management. We should leave this to the experts – the urban planners and civil engineers with expertise in storm water management.

Critical issue no. 1: Excessive plinth area ratio

The first critical issue addressed here is just one major component of existing Town Planning Act provisions within the purview of local authority building by-laws. This component provides a guide to the planned development of all built habitats.

The plinth area ratio is a guide for the cohabitation of the built habitat and the natural environment, by ensuring a balanced hydrological cycle (See Figure 1).

Whether the current standards in Uniform Building By-Laws are adequate in view of climatic change is itself in question. It is best we leave this to experts to deal with it – and not politicians, please.

What is lacking is lay people’s awareness of the need to comply strictly to the predetermined maximum plinth area ratios.

This lack of public knowledge and its associated impact on the urban water cycle has unfortunately let regulators and professionals who compromise on the guidelines off the hook. They are thus undeterred in their regulatory and professional negligence.

The demands of climate change require not just a tightening of these guidelines on plinth area ratios. We also need an awareness campaign through public media education and even in our children’s education curriculums.

Figures 1 and 2 show the hydrological cycle and the urban water cycle and the effects of high-density development in cities and other urban areas.

In a natural vegetation habitat like green lung areas, the rainwater runoff is just 10% and even lower in forest reserves.

In an urban habitat setting, the runoff increases to about 55% [or much more, in my estimation], exerting tremendous stress on storm water drainage management.

The fact that urban planning did not consider storm water retention reserves [ponds] in local precincts has almost killed what we planned.

Why public education? Well, even home builders like most of us, especially if we can afford it, take pains and spend enormous amounts on turning the free ground areas in our own home premises into hard surfaces for many reasons, eg ease of maintenance, additional carparks and an entertainment area for outdoor parties. Such hard outdoor surfaces in our homes result in complete rainwater runoff into storm drains.

What are the cumulative effects of such modifications in most households and commercial spaces? The grounds under their built habitats turn into a dead environment over just a few years. Just think about it.

Figure 1 will impress even clear-thinking children for the rest of their lives – a battle of minds won! A simple tutorial in primary school will help drive this point home for the betterment of future generations.

Sadly, where are the experts, some of whom are in government agencies and private practice, in educating the public, young and old, about this?

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The World Environment Forum made lots of noise in meetings over the past few months but paid lip service in the agreements they signed. Our minister spoke in support, but we hear Sabah is intent on working with its coal reserves. We are no different, after all, are we?

The plinth area ratio basically is the ratio of the footprint of a built habitat over the development land area. The current maximum ratio permitted in building by-laws for residential or commercial areas is around 50%. This may be higher for major complexes and 70% for industrial sites.

But in reality, the actual built area could be much higher, if we include all ancillary structures, hard landscape and circulation tarmac areas, which escape regular scrutiny.

Local authorities should hang their heads in shame over this. We can only wonder how well developers and regulatory authorities comply with the stipulated plinth area ratios.

Kuala Lumpur City Hall has rules about on-site storage detention (OSD) even for new home construction, which is subject to total plinth area ratios. But how religiously regulators and developers comply with the stipulated ratios – especially for major complexes – is something that must be verified.

Just drive around larger Kuala Lumpur city centre, say, within the middle ring road (Persiaran Mahameru/Jalan Tun Razak/Jalan Sungai Besi/Jalan Syed Putra) area, and roughly gauge the area of green lungs still available. Shockingly, the overall plinth area ratio might even exceed 80%.

That is not an exaggeration considering the extent of the hard landscape (roads, pavements, open and covered drains and other forms of sealed grounds, eg carparks). These hard surfaces actually seal the ground from absorbing rainfall.

Effectively, much of the city and urban land masses is dead, devoid of measures to prevent water ingress (water penetrating into buildings from outside). It will shock us to find hardly any open green lung capable of directly absorbing rainfall. The saving grace is the federal hills, which unfortunately are also earmarked for development.

Even the Merdeka Padang (Royal Selangor Club/former general post office) is actually a built habitat, not a natural habitat [political minds might say otherwise]. Think of the underground carpark that gets flooded by any heavy rainfall-cum-floods with cars submerged at their owners’ risk!

An aerial view would give us an idea of the damage to the natural habitat. The provision for natural local precinct water ponding reserves is non-existent – a critical fault.

If this is how cities are built – not just in greater Kuala Lumpur, Mont Kiara, that stretch of development from Megamall/Eco City to Kuala Lumpur Sentral, Bangsar South, and Pusat Bandar Damansara but also many sections of Petaling Jaya eg Kota Damansara, and many more areas such as Penang, Johor Bahru and Seremban – then we have a major problem. That is the trend.

All local area precincts seriously lack open green lungs that create a healthy open-air habitat to allow rain water to permeate into the ground. This is like not allowing the earth to breathe and live.

I believe Japan has put into practice innovative ideas that improve ground water permeability in existing hard landscape areas. This could improve the hydrological cycle balance in built habitats in cities and towns. Indeed, rapid solutions are available to mitigate the challenges of climate change.

Critical issue no. 2: Inadequate storm water drainage and operational management competence

The second critical issue is poor storm water management, which has been neglected over the the past two decade, largely because of mediocrity in its development and operational management.

The Drainage and Irrigation Department has certain storm water management plans for all the major towns and cities in Malaysia, and distinct skills also prevail. But one wonders how much down-the-stream ground and operational management there is.

This largely involves reliable and consistent desilting programmes, the installation of local and precinct-level water retention reserves and tidal wave gates (involving sluice valves and pumping stations incorporating redundancy generator sets, pole-mounted if necessary).

However, a critical review of it all – in light of climate change, rising sea levels and feeder river invert level controls or desilting – is much needed.

In this age of technology and software and hardware capabilities, such a review and masterplan updates should look into on-site storage detention capabilities, with strategic plans at the regional, state, district and local precinct levels.

This review should cover built habitats, drainage invert levels and new water storage detention – namely, precinct-level onsite storage detention water reserves (ponds and lakes) – if the latter is currently inadequate.

These issues put pressure on both effective design and operational management of storm water drainage.

Storm water drainage must also consider rising sea levels (by inches annually) and the management of river invert (river bed) levels.

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It also requires a masterplan for all components of storm water drainage. Such a masterplan must be in place prior to any major built habitat development.

Fundamental to such a plan is that physics dictates that ‘water finds its own level‘. Any design of a storm water drainage system must work within this parameter.

Where this is not possible, effective management requires the incorporation of many available options:

Natural water catchment areas must be retained and local precinct storm water retention ponds should be increased, where deemed necessary. This is needed due to seemingly irreversible climatic change. This could still be done. Singapore does that admirably well. It has a Gardens and Parks Department and irrigation expertise that is active and engages even relevant foreign talents.

In Malaysia, a reversal of the situation is the reality: we can see examples at Taman Tun Razak, Ampang and Taman Sri Muda, both in the early 1980s and potentially others (I stand to be corrected), where catchment areas have been turned into largely built habitat. Blunders arise as existing green lungs (other than the Lake Gardens) are slowly developed or rezoned for development under the pretext of inadequate development land. An example is the Federal Hills. The Kota Damansara development area too suffers from a lack of green lungs in local precincts.

We should have a storm water drainage masterplan at state, district and local precinct levels that considers approved development zones and plinth area ratios based on the current realities of climate change.

Subject to approved development zones and the masterplans, river invert levels must be dredged and maintained periodically, in line with the masterplan, due to silting from upstream development work.

Wherever required, tidal wave sluice gates with pumping stations and redundant standby power should be in place, as deemed necessary, for all rivers in all major cities and towns. Is it not a fact that most of our major towns expanded from river-mouth settlements?

The unusually heavy rainfall is not the prime reason for the flash floods, although it is a contributory factor. The flash floods are largely the result of a high tide, rising sea levels, siltation of rivers (higher invert levels) and a failure of river management sluice gates and pumping stations.

The net result is a sudden disastrous reversal of water flows (known as backflow). This explains why we saw muddy sludge in the flood waters. Otherwise, the water from rainfall would be clear and relatively clean. The public must know this.

The high tide and failure of the sluice gates and pumping stations caused a rapid backflow of sea and river water along the storm water drainage system itself, instantaneously resulting in flash floods. We can judge it by the deep sludge that appeared with flash floods.

Having the required skills sets and expertise in the civil service is key for all the above to work effectively and to salvage our natural habitat heritage. It requires political and civil service will power to implement meritocracy in skills and management down the line.

We must have this in all matters that the civil service deals in, especially in development, education, health and environmental management. It is foolhardy to think otherwise. Years of mismanagement have caught up on us.

Finally, let’s take a look at the conclusion of a 2018 paper on the subject [“Storm Water Management In Relation To The New Kwasa Damansara Township”, Chin Kiat Chang, Nur Azazi Zakaria and Mohd Radzman Othman, Matec Web Of Conferences 246, 01112]:

The primary goal of the integrated storm water management and drainage master plan are to minimize the impact of urbanization to the storm water environment and to strike a balance between social, economic and environmental concerns to achieve a sustainable development. With the implementation of MSMA and DID Manual incorporating the latest development in storm water management that is known as control-at-source and treatment train approach, the quality and quantity of the runoff from developing area can be maintained to be the same as pre-development condition.

Hence, Kwasa Damansara new township is aspired to become a model township in Malaysia and on its way to achieving the targets set earlier with three visions  of being green, inclusive and connected, by implementing a number of solutions to address the issues burdening the cities of today.

Leo Antony is a civil and structural engineer who served as district engineer in the Public Works Department in the Klang Valley and Perak. He later worked for the property development arm of Telekom Malaysia. His expertise lies in the management of public facilities, upgrading of telecommunications infrastructure, and construction and project management. These days, he shares his experience with anyone who cares to listen



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Khoo Soo Hay
Khoo Soo Hay
2 Jan 2022 6.48am

We want brains in the Civil Service not race!!