Saturday, December 06, 2008

Lessons from Highland Towers lie buried in Bukit Antarabangsa rubble

By Baradan Kuppusamy

DEC 6 — One of the first actions the government took when Highland Towers collapsed in 1993, killing 48 people, was to announce a ban on hillside development.

Today the government announced another ban on hillside development following the tragedy in Bukit Antarabangsa where at least four people are dead, many injured and nearly 5,000 evacuated and a large upscale housing area declared a disaster zone.

This latest tragedy happened about a kilometre from the Highland Towers disaster that struck 15 years ago almost to the day.

In between the intervening years hillside development has been taking place and at an alarming rate despite the tragedies. Every November/December when heavy rains start, landslides happen and policymakers usually passed off the tragedies as an "act of God".

The forgotten lessons of the the Highland Towers tragedy, if complied with, would have saved many lives.

The official inquiry that followed and the drawn-out court case over the Highland Tower tragedy highlighted the failure of the local authorities to control indiscriminate hillside development.

It also fingered hillside development laws that were rudimentary at best and worst, the Federal Court held in 2006 that local councils were not liable for damage caused by landslides and collapses — virtually giving local councils total immunity against negligence suits.

The court found that the specific causes of the collapse were damage done by water that was diverted by another development project up the hill and which flowed behind the Highland Tower blocks.

The same reasons can be expected for the Jalan Damansara landslide yesterday and today's tragedy at Bukit Antarabangsa — damage done by uncontrolled, unmanaged water flow and rudimentary retaining walls unable to bear the sudden increase in load — mud, boulders, debris — that were loosen by water.

The Federal Court in the Highland Towers tragedy noted the same cause and effect, saying "an extensive area of land was denuded of trees and water flowed over this area carrying eroded soil, silt. These caused or contributed to the collapse of Block 1 of the Highland Towers."

But the lessons are not learnt and the tragedy is repeated, said lawyers involved with the Highland Towers case.

"People, policymakers, local authorities and developers did not learn the lessons," said a retired lawyer who was briefly involved in the case. "The reason is the huge profit that is to be made."

"The profit in upscale hillside development is enormous all round and everybody — officials, developers and lawyers — are willing to close an eye," he said.

"The structures look strong and they are strong but unless you manage the surrounding area of a hill and control all the development activities, damage would be done over time leading to a tragedy," the lawyer said.

"A hill is a holistic structure… you cannot develop one side and ignore the other sides. Geologically, everything is inter-connected on a hill," he said.

The shocking part of the Highland Towers tragedy is that local councils were absolved for their failures and held not liable for losses suffered by anyone should a building collapse.

Coming as it does from the Federal Court, the matter is decided unless it is reviewed by the same court. As such the Ampang Jaya Municipal Council then and now is absolved and not liable because the decision still stands.

In the Highland Towers case the council was held not liable for losses suffered by the 73 residents of Block 2 and 3 and in the deaths of the 48 when Block 1 collapsed.

The 2-1 ruling held that local authorities like MPAJ were given full immunity under Section 95 (2) of the Street, Drainage & Building Act 1974 (Act 133) from claims for the pre-collapse period.

The majority decision delivered by Justice Abdul Hamid Mohamad said that if the local councils were made liable, it would open the floodgates to further claims for economic loss, and this would deplete the council's resources meant for the provision of basic services and infrastructure.

He held that it was unfair for rate payers' funds to be used to pay negligent suits.

"In my view, the provision of basic necessities for the general public has priority over compensation for pure economic loss of some individuals, who are clearly better off than the majority of the residents in the local council area," he said.

Lessons from Highland Towers lie buried in Bukit Antarabangsa rubble
The Malaysian Insider, Malaysia