Road blocks

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 December, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 December, 2003, 12:00am

The New Klang Valley Expressway provides an important link in the 848 km motorway that runs the length of the Malaysian peninsula. It allows motorists travelling up or down the long, narrow country to bypass busy Kuala Lumpur. But thanks in part to the greed of developers, this convenient route has been put out of service.

The 35 km bypass takes motorists around Kuala Lumpur while staying within the North-South Expressway (NSE) system. The system has run well for the past decade. But on November 26, 20,000 tonnes of rocks and boulders - some as big as a two-storey house - came crashing down and blocked the expressway. Luckily no lives were lost, as the avalanche occurred around dawn on a public holiday.

The rock blockade on the bypass forces about 70,000 vehicles a day to enter the capital before rejoining the NSE system. Originally, the bypass was supposed to close for only two weeks to allow for the debris to be cleared. But it has been almost a month now, and the government has not given the green light to re-open it.

Parts of the bypass cut through the mountains and hills of the Bukit Lanjan area, where the roadbuilders assumed they were carving through solid faces of rock.

Soil engineers are speculating that heavy rains in the past two months may have caused the disaster. Before the rock slide, 138 mm of rain fell in the area in just over three days. Engineers believe soil erosion helped to loosen the granite boulders. Water continued to gush from hillsides near the scene of the rock slide days after the incident.

But even someone without a soil science degree would be able to declare that wanton destruction of the surrounding hills and foothills for housing development was a sure recipe for disaster.

Over the past five years or so, there has been tremendous development along the bypass. Areas that had been left intact to maintain the balance in the eco-system were suddenly flattened for building high rise condominiums and fancy country houses, as property developers took advantage of the convenience that the expressway offered.

Can such disasters be prevented? Valentino Tew, a soil engineer, says preventing landslides requires long-term but basic initiatives such as constant monitoring and continual maintenance. Such monitoring and maintenance is expensive, he said, but necessary to prevent the loss of life.

Abang Abdullah Abang Ali, president of the Malaysian Institute of Engineers, agrees with Mr Tew that most landslides are preventable, and could be avoided if slopes and hillsides were 'designed and constructed properly'.

But he gave a man-made reason why they could recur: 'The problem most engineers face in the design and construction is the cost. Most clients are reluctant to pay. So the problem starts when insufficient research is done, contractors are not advised properly and these structures cannot survive forever.'