By Siva Selvam
BANGI, 26 May, 2011 - Even more lives could have been lost than the 16 people in the May 21, 2011 landslide tragedy at an orphanage in Hulu Langat near Kajang but for a timely warning from UKM’s expert on geological hazards, Associate Prof Dr Tajul Anuar Jamaluddin.
He is the Coordinator of the Geological Hazards Programme at UKM’s Southeast Asia Disaster Prevention Research Institute (SEADPRI) and is now developing an early warning system for landslides that will alert the authorities and people in the vicinity of an impending disaster.
Several prototypes are ready and tested at four slopes between Gerik and Kuala Kangsar in Perak and a movement was detected on one slope.
The Geoseismic Wireless Extenso Sensor System, or Geo-WES, was originally developed by Rapid Matrix Sdn Bhd. Rapid Matrix had no geological expert and Dr Tajul Anuar was invited to join. UKM is currently drawing up an MoU with the company to develop the slope movement monitoring system that can be used at all slopes.
The sensor system will alert control centres on even minute soil movements. The centres will then trigger SMSes to residents in the vicinity and other relevant parties. Dr Tajul Anuar said the equipment is able to detect even one millimetre of soil movement on a slope, said.
In the Hulu Langat incident, Dr Tajul Anuar did an extensive survey of the hilltop and surrounding terrain by Sunday morning after the Saturday afternoon incident when he saw heavy machinery being used to remove debris and earth from the site.
He advised them to immediately stop the clearing work. “Just as there are aftershocks following an earthquake, there can also be subsequent landslides. The danger signs were all there – trees uprooted, soil fissures, water seepage from the earth. The slope was still at a very dangerous angle and the movement of heavy machinery could trigger another collapse,” Dr Tajul Anuar said.
The clearing work stopped and resumed only two to three days later and even then beginning from the top of the slope as advised.
UKM set up SEADPRI on June 1, 2008 to oversee holistic research activities related to disasters regionally as well as on a global scope.
The programme is to help governments arrive at a decision when considering policies on climate, geological and technological disasters and in increasing the required number of human resources needed as well as improving the ability of the work force at the local, state, national and international levels, especially in Southeast Asia.
Dr Tajul Anuar and his team is involved in providing expertise, consultations and advice to various government bodies as well as the public and house owners when selecting sites for building construction. The unit have gained recognition with many construction companies regularly seeking its advice, particularly on hill slope development.
At Hulu Langat, Dr Tajul Anuar ended up providing critical expert input thereby helping to avert a worsening situation. He has submitted a comprehensive report to the government on the incident. This is one example of how UKM, as a premier research university, is contributing towards national wellbeing and development.
Dr Tajul Anuar said: “In Malaysia, focus has been on gauging rainfall to indicate potential landslides, but the best way is to check the actual soil movement,” he said.
While it costs about RM10 million to repair a slope after a landslide, such a monitoring system costs only about RM100,000.
One objective of SEADPRI’s Geological Hazards Programme is to change the focus of current practices in disaster management from a responsive approach to a more preventive one, in order to prevent or reduce the impact of disasters.
SEADPRI sees the need for proper management in a holistic manner to replace the current ad hoc emergency response. The Geological Hazards Programme is working on such a management plan.
It includes analysing landslips with regard to risk assessments, the elements involved such as communities and infrastructure and areas to be given priority to curb wastage of costs and resources.
The non-structural mitigation strategy includes policies as well as one-stop centres at local government level to process hill slope development that should include the involvement of technical government agencies.
The structural mitigation strategy includes the construction of retaining walls, studying and coping with debris flows and placing greater emphasis on public awareness.
“The education effort must start at the school level. The media must also be more involved in informing about the dangers of hill slope development and the safety measures that needed to be taken,” Dr Tajul Anuar said.
Studies have shown that between 1973 and 2007, there were more than 200 landslides in Malaysia that resulted in the loss of about 500 lives and an economic loss of about RM3 billion.