Three innocent lives were lost in the disastrous Baling flood that washed away at least 15 premises and severely damaged another 18.
Nine schools were also affected and over 1,400 persons evacuated.
Is this the price of development that ordinary people must pay?
On the one hand, Energy and Natural Resources Minister Takiyuddin Hassan correctly observed that for 70 to 100 years, no disastrous flood had occurred in this area, though there might have been small floods.
On the other, he not only did not give any explanation for this but instead claimed that the massive flood was a natural disaster, as no active logging was in progress in the Gunung Inas forest reserve area.
The minister, by claiming that the flood was a natural disaster, was pre-empting investigations and in a veiled manner suggesting to the investigators what their conclusion should be.
This statement by the minister amounted to interference with investigations, which he said would be carried out by various government agencies.
Would any government department or agency investigating the disaster be bold enough to say it was a man-made disaster after the minister said it was a natural disaster? A ‘finding’ contrary to what the minister said would imply that the minister was lying!
Thus, an investigation by government agencies would merely be an eyewash to placate the public.
Takiyuddin also rejected calls for a royal commission of inquiry to be set up to find out why this disastrous flood happened. Is there something to hide?
[Yesterday, Environment and Water Minister Tuan Ibrahim Tuan Man revealed that preliminary investigations found that a breached reservoir was a probable cause of the flood.]
Government agencies and departments are not competent parties to investigate this disaster due to the conflict of interest in their roles as agencies or departments involved in the approval, monitoring and enforcement action. They cannot be investigating or auditing their own selves.
From photographs circulating in the media, a large area of the hills could be seen to have been cleared of all vegetation and the soil left exposed to the rains. Any schoolchild who has learnt about soil erosion could tell us that heavy rains must have washed a lot of the exposed soil into the rivers.
There may be no active logging going on now, but that is irrelevant. What is relevant is that a large area of the hills is lying bare or ‘botak’ (bald). Photographic evidence shows this.
This is what needs investigation. How did the deforestation take place? Who approved it? Why was no monitoring of the forest reserve carried out? Why was a disaster in the making not seen by any government authority?
Was there dereliction of duty by the officers who should have been monitoring the project to ensure all the mitigation and rehabilitation measures stated in the environmental impact assessment were being strictly complied with?
According to Department of Environment director general Wan Abdul Latiff Wan Jaffar, the approval for the environmental impact assessment was given in 2013 for the planting of rubber on a 5,000-hectare area.
But no monitoring was done by any agency until 10 March 2021, when a notice was issued to the project developer after it was discovered that it had planted durians instead.
For eight years, no authority thought it necessary to monitor the works on the site to ensure compliance with the environmental impact assessment.
An inspection on 24 May 2022 found that no replanting of tree saplings had been done in Compartment 8 of the project. But it was too late to prevent the flood from happening.
Did all these non-compliances with the environmental impact assessment not contribute to the massive floods? Why did these non-compliances take place?
When the environmental impact reports are approved based on the assurances given in them, has the approving authority – or any other authority – no responsibility to monitor how work at the project site is being carried out?
Investigations by any government department are therefore not acceptable. A royal commission of inquiry should be set up to investigate how and why the various government agencies and departments responsible for guardianship of the forest reserve and compliance with the environmental impact assessment did not see a disaster in the making – a disaster which took three innocent lives and caused so much property destruction.
Why a royal commission of inquiry and not an ad hoc independent committee?
A royal commission is formed under the Commission of Enquiry Act 1950. The commissioners have powers to receive all the evidence and examine all those involved in the matter. They also have the power to summon any person in Malaysia to appear before them to give evidence, and to issue warrants of arrest if anyone refuses to give evidence.
On the other hand, an executive-appointed committee does not have a legal basis, let alone the powers of a royal commission, and it reports back to the executive.