THE BATANG KALI LANDSLIDE – A National Dilemma or Symptomatic Problem?

by Gary Khaeril Zach, Director of EDUTREE Services

Traditionally, December is the time people take time off to relax, retreat and recuperate, especially for the city weary folks of Klang Valley and the surrounding urban areas. However, in the cool and quiet hours of 16 December, when Malaysia was asleep a tragedy began to unfold.

First and foremost and with all due respect, our deepest regret goes out to the victims and amilies for the loss of innocent lives. The magnanimous actions of the SAR teams who put their lives at risk to rescue victims and search for bodies (not to mention the legendary K-9 unit’s expertise) is something we all can draw courage upon.

Since news broke to the public on Friday and the media begin to pick up “bits and pieces” of information that trickled in, I could not help but grew more irritated. The slurry of information” and headlines went from “Genting Highlands Landslide”, “We must not let this happen again” to calls to legalise camping and campsites showed a typically reactive approach. The host of statements issued pointed to the usual circus of addressing symptoms rather than the root cause.

This time around the same “knee-jerk” reaction was seen. First, the public outcry. Then finger pointing. Misinformation and emotions ran high from the informed and uninformed public and authorities. Social media was flooded. Afterwards, came the politicians and authorities who did their rounds and left emphasising and re-emphasising rhetoric and repeating populist statements. Statements from it “must never be allowed to happen again” to “bad weather” and blaming La Niňa were floated by the press. Some press even went one step further of labelling December as “deadly”.

Not to be left out was a sudden surge of opinions questioning the validity of campsites and campsite permits. If only permits could have prevented this mishap. Questions instead should be raised on monitoring and approval process of local authorities. Any calls for regulations are good for the industry but it should be done in a comprehensive and systematic manner, rather than emotional. This incident seems to have painted a bad light on camping and the outdoors. Akin to the Malay proverb, “setitik nila, rosak susu sebelanga”.

Reading the news made me draw parallels to the same kind of reaction when the Highland Towers collapsed like a deck of cards some 30 years ago. I recalled having to navigate my way to Ampang, Ulu Kelang to cover the incident and report.

Last December (18 December to be exact) residents of the picturesque hamlet called Janda Baik, experienced a gargantuan mudflow and landslide. Did we learn from this incident and banned all logging activities as a result?

Flashback to December 2021, in Taman Sri Muda in the aftermath of the floods, have we taken meaningful initiatives to allay fears of local communities of a repeat?

This constant charade reminds me of a “role play” exercise with a class of students. Only in this case, the role playing was real.

Now, let’s take a look at the Hulu Gombak – Klang Gates – Batang Kali (Sg. Tua-Ulu Yam) – Janda Baik- Genting Highland region as an eco-region. First and foremost, this “area” is a magnet for developers and opportunists. One only needs to take a drive along the scenic route to understand this. At one point in time, the road up to Fraser’s Hill from Kuala Kubu Bharu to the Gap was as scenic as this route.

Having resided in Ulu Yam and utilised the Batang Kali-Ulu Yam road in the Genting Valley, I bear witness to unexplained and unwarranted developments mushrooming overnight. Local governments have continued to approve or allowed unplanned developments here. As time went on, the developments became bolder from small private enterprises, farms to large resorts and projects as they slowly but surely took hold of this “eco-region”. “Nasi sudah menjadi bubur”.

Time and time again, environmentalists and concerned members of civil society have warned of the fragility of developing these steep lands (above 30° gradient). Scientists from research institutions have documented and exhorted the authorities to protect the fragile environment of this “eco region” up to Kemensah and Klang Gates Quartzite Ridge.

Remember the Selangor State Park which held so much promise many years ago? Essentially, the State Park which encompasses 113,000 ha @ 14% of the land area in Selangor with the mid-region around Gombak is Selangor’s “life support system”. It is in this eco-region that Selangor, the most developed state draws its pristine water resources (water catchments that feed all major rivers in the state begins here), recreational and eco-tourism potential, biodiversity and a host of other eco-system services that bring benefits to the local communities and local economy.

Organisms make up natural communities – plants, animals and humans included. Communities thrive because of the remaining forests and complex mountain ecosystems in this eco-region.

Ongoing research in the eco-region have documented up to 40% of the native vascular plant flora of Peninsular Malaysia (Flora of Peninsular Malaysia). Much information have been derived from studies based at the University Malaya’s Field Studies Centre at 16th mile Ulu Gombak. Over 90 of some 200 mammalian species (including bats) found in Peninsular Malaysia have been documented here. The checklist of birds stands at close to 200 species, compared to 247 spp. in the Fraser’s Hill (Strange 2004). Fully protected mammals occur such as the Slow Loris, Colugo, Sun Bear, Tapir, Barking and Sambar deer. Apart from many other threatened species of plants and animals, this area is also the natural range of the iconic Serow (Capricornis sumatrensis) or mountain goat. More new discoveries are also being made every year by scientists working in the University Malaya’s Field Station in Ulu Gombak.

To be fair no one, not even “experts” could have accurately predicted the landslide. Vilifying camping and outdoor activities is akin to killing the proverbial goose that lays the golden eggs. Camping, if done systematically with pre-trip risk assessments, infusing environmental ethics, responsibility, and with SoPs in place is a powerful learning experience that can trigger positive changes in attitudes towards the environment and the social dimension. In the US, South Africa and Australia camping is a multi-million dollar industry with a complete supply chain from equipment, technical skills, training of human resources and various categories of campsites, right down to the actual activity.

It is discouraging that even before the Batang Kali mishap, there are already no incentives or advantages to spur teachers to bring their students for learning activities outdoors. This has been going on for more than a decade. The onus is on teachers to bear the risks, raise the required funds and answer to over-protective parents. I sense that teachers who organise and approve camping and outdoor excursions face an uphill and unappreciated task not to mention putting their career at risk.

More and more local children especially urbanites “lose” that connection to the environment in part due to the lack of opportunities and exposure. This is a great disadvantage for a country known as a “biodiversity hotspot” and rich in natural resources like ours.

Hopefully, when cool heads prevail, now is the right time for us to come together and evaluate various macro and micro approaches needed to move forward. A holistic approach is required to revive and develop a conservation blue print for Selangor looking at broad eco-regions and its important corridors and buffers. Now is the time to re-engage stakeholders, strengthen and support scientific research, re-energise environmental education in schools and going back to the basic tenets of Sustainable Development – “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising on the needs of the future” (Brundtland Report). Otherwise, this will not be the last time we see innocent lives lost to environmental mishaps.