IT was only about less than two weeks ago when this paper carried a leader on Penang’s Tanjung Bungah landslide tragedy, in which 11 lives were lost. Yesterday, after a continuous 17-hour downpour, coupled with heavy winds since Saturday noon, the Pearl of the Orient was again inundated by floodwaters, reaching almost the rooftops of houses and buildings in some areas. George Town and Seberang Prai were paralysed by landslides and uprooted trees, and roads were impassable. Mother Nature, it seems, was wreaking havoc, the onslaught this time more than massive. Six casualties had been reported, but many more have been displaced and the 42 evacuation centres are packed to the hilt. Although floodwaters started receding at noon yesterday, rain started again two hours later and is expected to end today, according to the Meteorological Department, which has issued an orange alert of heavy rain and strong winds for northern states.
While the Penang government cannot be fully faulted for this “act of Mother Nature”, it must be stressed that mitigation efforts were not in place. State Local Government, Traffic Management and Flood Mitigation Committee chairman Chow Kon Yeow has admitted that the drainage system was unable to cope with the intense rainfall, which was the highest ever.
But, it cannot be denied that Penang is in a precarious state because of excessive development condensed on hillslopes, said to be the major contributing factor to the disaster. Environmentalists are saying “this is the worst ever” and a “catastrophe just waiting to happen”. Visitors to the island have also decried that Penang today is not the beautiful “pearl” it once was. The verdant hills are interspersed with large tracts of exposed land, some completely devoid of vegetation.
Is Penang finally paying the price for its aggressive development? Have the problems from more than a decade of hill clearing and endless construction — “it’s payback time” — finally made their mark? Is this also the price of not paying heed to the cries of the Penang public or the Department of Environment’s (DoE) advisory to not proceed with construction and development on hillslopes? The floods yesterday severely affected an upmarket housing project on a hillslope, said to cater to the “rich and elite”. Yet, another one?
Indeed, the weather has not been kind to Penang. The flash floods are one of the most talked-about issues, at the State Legislative Assembly, which is in session, and among Penangites. Reportedly, Penang had a record 119 flooding incidents between 2013 and Oct 15.
Perhaps, now is an opportune time for the Penang government to take a step back and assess the damage and misery caused by excessive development. Not heeding the DoE’s advisory, for instance, on the Tanjung Bungah project (which is among the worst-hit areas) was a path to disaster. Perhaps, too, it is time to start respecting Mother Nature and caring for the environment. For, woe betide those who tempt fate too much, as a disaster such as this will, no doubt, happen again, and again, if nature’s warnings are not heeded. If Penang wants to leave behind a livable environment for future generations, it had better start listening to the voices of reason and the cries of Mother Nature.