The River systems, the floods-Part 2

I walked gingerly on an inch of mud on the main road of Kampung Raja expecting to fall flat on my face at anytime. I did not realize that my balancing act was being observed by a group of reporters, a few politicians and my campaign manager who were a short distance away. It was on the 26 th of April 2013 right during the campaign period and Kampung Raja had just experienced one of its worst floods. Rain had pummeled Kampung Raja for a few hours  that afternoon and that was all it took. Sungai Ikan which meanders through Kampung Raja overflowed its banks and mud poured onto the main street. The shops along the main road and the wet market were badly affected with mud reaching up to 2 feet in some areas. By the time we reached Kg Raja the waters had subsided. The place was in a mess and very chaotic with shopkeepers sweeping out the debris, onlookers gawking, trucks passing by, honking away and cars getting stuck. Before I could reach the community hall, I was stopped in my tracks by a villager whom I knew, who was busy sweeping the mud in front of the wet market.” Hey Doc, look at this. I have a stall in the market and all my goods are ruined. The waters came up to here ( her waist).They came from the back and the front and it happened so fast. We had no time to save our goods” She then exploded with raw emotion and blamed the local authorities, the corruption, the illegal land clearing upstream and the illegal extensions along the river banks. “It’s the corruption” she said over and over again. Such was the mood in the aftermath of the flash flood that day. Fortunately no lives were lost.

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Kampung Raja remains the most vulnerable to flash floods followed by Tringkap and Kuala Terla, then Tanah Rata and Brinchang. In fact with the uncontrolled development in Cameron Highlands no place is spared. Flash floods are now occurring quiet frequently and have resulted in loss of lives and properties. In the same week, when Sungai Tringkap overflowed its banks , large tracts of farmland were inundated. When I wanted to go in to see the damage, a young farmer friend advised me, “Think better not ,Doc. Emotions are running high and place is volatile.” He later returned to say that had he taken pictures he could have gotten whacked. The sight of an elderly farmer, choked with tears when describing the loss of his ‘siew pak choy’ and tomato harvest, still remains vivid in my mind. Tringkap villagers living along the river banks have described the sheer speed of the rise of flood waters each time it rained torrentially. One minute the waters were at the floor level, next minute at the level of the tables. Some time back,a foreign worker was almost swept away while trying to save his refrigerator. Another villager clung for dear life on a tree root only to swept away by the raging waters before rescuers could get to her. Her body was only found days later downstream in Sungai Telom.

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Lowlanders often listen with a sense of incredulousness when we mention about floods in Cameron Highlands. “Hey,how can there be floods in Camerons? It’s so high up. When Camerons get flooded the whole of West Malaysia will be flooded” Yes we do get floods, flash floods which happens when a large volume of water within a short period of time overwhelms the drainage system. It happens in a flash and disappears in a flash! But the damage can be massive.

The main contributing factors are:

  • The  extensive land clearing upstream with no proper silt trap in place. Many of these land clearings are illegal and with the poor enforcement of laws this contributing factor is expected to worsen. For some approved developments , technical advice from the Irrigation and Drainage Department are not heeded. The heavy siltation leads to shallower rivers which overflows easily.
  • Plastic roofing sheets used to protect vegetable and flower plots. This factor is fairly unique to Camerons because the plastic roofing is so widely used. I was first told about this by village elders from Bertam Valley and Kampung Raja and later this was confirmed by experts in the field. When it rains the plastic sheets reduce the amount of rainwater reaching the soil and vegetation which can act as a temporary sponge to slow down the water flow into the rivers.The result is a large amount of rainwater run off from the plastic roofing into the rivers, overwelming them.
  • The narrow rivers. The early settlements were along the rivers and as families grew and buildings increased the river banks became crowded. Soon the river reserves were taken up and later illegal extensions extended into the rivers itself. I was really shocked to see how narrow Sungai Tringkap was and how vulnerable the residents were.
  • Solid and agricultural waste thrown into rivers. River and drainage systems are treated as convenient dumpsites. Even rivers in the water catchment areas are treated as dumping grounds for both liquid and solid waste. For rivers that passed through major settlements  and farms ,one can often see discarded household items such as old mattresses, cupboards, fridges, bottles and farming items such as the ubiquitious plastic roofing sheets, pesticides containers, discarded vegetables and flowers. Of course our rivers will get clogged up with these kind of insults.

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The steps to alleviate the problem of flash floods are simple in theory but the implementation is far more difficult.

  • Rein in corruption. Time and time again this has proven to be easier said than done. Rather than slowing down , illegal land clearing has continued unabated and have picked up pace in all the townships, visible for all to see. It is  really sad to see Cameron Highlands going down this path.
  • Encourage farmers to do rainwater collection system. It is low cost and effective. Rainwater from the plastic roofing sheets can be channeled into holding tanks or ponds which can later be used for irrigation and cleaning etc. This needs the cooperation from the majority for it to be effective.
  • Widen the narrow rivers. This has been done to Sungai Bertam in the heart of Tanah Rata along the school field more than 10 years ago and to Sungai Ringlet not long ago. Illegal structures along Sungai Ringlet have also been removed and a bigger bridge built. The result is an absence of flash floods since then. Similar steps are also being taken in Sungai Tringkap and Sungai Ikan with realignment of Sungai Tringkap in some parts.(Deepening rivers is an exercise in futility in Camerons due to the very high siltation rate with funding for it literally going down the drain.)
  • Keeping our rivers clean. Campaigns have been done, signboards erected to remind the public to do so. Prevention of flash floods requires efforts by both the authorities and the community. The community should dispose off solid waste in a proper manner. Dumping them into the rivers is not one of them and it is downright irresponsible.
  • Rain gauges are in place in flood prone areas as part of the early warning system but having experienced quite a few flash floods, many  residents probably have an in-built early warning system by now!
  • Approved development projects should follow the Erosion and Sediment Control Plan with proper silt traps in place.

Record of  Major Flash Floods in the Telom River System and Bertam River system

Date                Rainfall mm/hr        River                      Location

13.8.2011         48                        Sg Ikan        Kg Raja Town

15.10.2011        48                       Sg Ringlet       Ringlet

17.9.2011           39                     Sg Telom     Blue Valley Estate

14.10.2011        20                      Sg Tringkap   Tringkap

14.10.2011         31                      Sg Ikan        Kg Raja Town

12.8,2012           67                    Sg Ikan        Kg Raja Town

2.12.2012           48                     Sg Ikan        Kg Raja Town

26.4.2013           47                     Sg Ikan        Kg Raja Town

26.4.2013            31                    Sg Tringkap     Tringkap

 

Tringkap floods on the 14th October 2011 -Watch video

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MQDOK2yww8M

Kampung Raja floods on the same day

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k9OeY0bihlg

 

In the year 2011 there were 11 other minor flash floods involving mainly Sg Ikan in Kg Raja , 8 other minor floods in 2012 and 3 other minor floods in 2013.

While it is certainly not easy to witness the effects of flash floods, it is much more distressing to those affected by it. Rivers bring life to a place but neglect them and we shall ultimately pay a heavy price for it.

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Robinson Falls(Sungai Bertam) on a calm day

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http://youtu.be/TX–puq8-yI

Robinson Falls (Sungai Bertam) after  heavy rains