Cameron Higlands on brink of collapse


(NST) – CAMERON Highlands is headed for a catastrophe “of an unimaginable scale” in five to 10 years if illegal land clearing continues unabated.

Experts have warned of massive mudslides and flash floods that could wipe out townships and villages in Tapah, Kampung Raja, Blue Valley, Kuala Terla and Tanah Rata, and the more than 150,000 people in the highlands.

The worst case scenario is the complete collapse of the entire hill system.

Geologists have cautioned of an already shaky hill structure, teetering on the brink of collapse, as a result of illegal land clearing, removal of top soil, heavy siltation and excess ground water.

They pointed to an unusually high number of mudslides since the beginning of the year, a new phenomenon that have seen no less than 150 incidents. What is most perplexing is why sound recommendations made by experts on the heels of recurring disasters are being systematically ignored.

This includes the application of the “Rose index” used as an early warning indicator of landslides.

The New Straits Times learned that the Rose index would be read in tandem with a “calendar” of the periods with the heaviest rainfall and analyses of risky locations, soil samples and composition.

The use of the “ROM” scale in the index system is to predict the probability of a landslide happening at a particular area.

Under the scale’s Rainfall Erosivity Assessment, the Highland Towers (the block of condominium in Hulu Kelang that collapsed on Dec 11, 1993) was rated at 15. The same scale rated Cameron Highlands at a worrying 55 on Dec 7, 1994.

The rate of rainfall before the Highland Towers’ incident was measured at 868mm as opposed to 1169mm in Kampung Raja during the same period.

“All it takes is just five days of the kind of rain we saw on Nov 5 (where landslides following heavy rain claimed five lives),” said authorities tasked to mitigate the problem.

They concede that the problem is beyond their control.

They took the New Straits Times team to several newly developed projects, not only agricultural, but also commercial and housing projects sitting on hills with steep gradients, some at 90-degrees in Ulu Merah, Kuala Kerla and Ringlet, among others.

New hillside residential areas that do not adhere to the feet buffer rule are also mushrooming. One such development near Tanah Rata has less than 10 feet from the end of the houses to the edge of the sheer drop. The back alley of this multi-million ringgit housing project is propped up by several concrete pillars.

Further down the same hillside are homes that were constructed by settlers there.

These sit above this particular housing project and will not stand a chance if the pillars give way due to soil movement.

“Cameron’s structure has never been in this critical a stage. It’s just a matter of time before something happens.

“If you look at this particular area, any major soil movement could result in the entire hillside to collapse.

“Tonnes of mud, earth, rocks, boulders and dirt will smash down to the Tapah road, and continue down the valley,” said a resident, who has been living in the area for the last nine years. At the base of the valley is another township, mostly with low- and middle-income residents. The Fire and Rescue Department and police quarters are also located there.

The team was taken along routes in and out of the highlands, sandwiched by steep gradients, reaching almost 90 degrees, with massive “scarrings”.

“This shows that there has been serious soil movement. The danger is on hot days, there will be cracks on these slopes, and when it rains, water will seep into them and the risk gets greater every time it happens,” said sources.

Authorities are not optimistic that this worsening environmental problem besieging the highlands is going away anytime soon, even with the focus given by the authorities following the latest disaster.

These, they said, were especially so with the kind of siltation and waste going into water sources throughout the highlands and channelled into the more than 50-year old Sultan Abu Bakar dam in Ringlet.

“The dam’s capacity has been drastically reduced over the years. The sedimentation is unbelievable.

“You are looking at 40 football fields full of sediment despite daily clearings by the concessionaire
appointed by Tenaga Nasional Bhd.”

Authorities dealing with the aftermath said they would never be able to win the battle to stop illegal land clearing.

Many were frustrated at being forced to sit back as “these illegal land clearing seem to be protected by hidden hands”.

They spoke of operations mounted where documents with valid endorsements by “these hidden hands” were shoved in their faces. They had no choice but to comply or risk being transferred out.

Meanwhile, district Fire and Rescue Department chief Yusry Ahmad said this year alone, his men had to put out 37 fires in the highlands.

Most of these reports were from the public, he said, adding that many more could have happened without anyone’s knowledge, especially as illegal land clearing took place deep in the forest.

“Every time we go in to put out the fires, they (farm workers) will come back and start burning again. This is the most cost-effective way for them to clear the land.”

Sources said the guidelines enshrined in the 2003-2015 Cameron Highlands Local District Plan, with an emphasis on a balanced and low-density development, were not at all adhered to.

Small scale, selected development with no negative impact on the environment, one of the seven thrusts in the plan, have been ignored.

The population of Cameron Highlands is estimated at 32,000. The conservative estimate of the number of illegal foreign workers is at 60,000.