Healing Penang Hill

The storm of November 4 left Penang Hill in a sorry state. But within two months, things were practically back to normal. This is how it was recovered.

The railway track was badly affected by the landslide and the funicular train service was suspended.

The freak storm on the night of November 4 battered Penang with strong winds and unrelenting rain, which lasted for 15 hours. It brought chaos throughout the state – roads were blocked by fallen trees, houses were submerged under floodwater and the military was deployed to evacuate the victims.

Up on Penang Hill, over 180 people – including residents, workers and tourists – were stranded. As many as 194 incidences of landslides, rockfalls, fallen trees and branches along the railway track, jeep track, major roads and paths on the summit area were reported.

It was declared a red zone for two months for the safety of the residents, operators, visitors and hikers. Repair works started immediately. “We worked non-stop for two months, seven days a week, from morning till late evening. The priority was to clear the roads so that they were once again accessible to the public,” says Cheok Lay Leng, general manager of Penang Hill Corporation (PHC).

Today, while the hill is back in business, reconstruction works are still going on.

“It is a 3R process: restore, rehabilitate, and rebuild,” says Cheok. “Areas that we can restore, we will restore. Areas that we can rehabilitate, we will rehabilitate. Some infrastructure that was destroyed, we will try to rebuild. For the severe landslides, we may let nature take its course – hopefully, in 10 or 20 years, the vegetation may grow back to its natural condition.

“The rehabilitation process of affected areas is going to be quite a long journey. We will have to spend money on slope stabilisation in areas that pose high risk to the public. For example, we cemented the middle station slope after it collapsed. We also performed control blasting1 on several places to remove big, fallen boulders.”

According to Cheok, restoring Penang Hill was a challenging task because the hill is located so close to urban areas and is largely a forest reserve. “We cannot treat the slopes on Penang Hill like the slopes along the highway – we have to employ various civil engineering methods for slope stabilisation and erosion control. We hope to work closely with professionals, civil engineers, scientists and academics to find innovative techniques to restore Penang Hill,” says Cheok.

The paths from the middle station to the upper station were badly affected by the storm, and the recovery work took 51 days. At the middle station alone, over 400 tonnes of earth and an estimated 300 tonnes of boulders, uprooted trees and debris were removed using only hand tools.

“During the first two weeks after the disaster, people often asked me why we were taking so long to clear (the debris). My immediate answer was, how it was built 100 years ago will be how it is recovered today. We were only using hand tools – bucket after bucket of soil and debris were passed around.

Cheok Lay Leng, general manager of Penang Hill Corporation.

“We had to instantly engineer ways to do things during the recovery process. We had to figure out what we needed to build just to repair the track. For example, we had to design special trolleys to push rails that weighed nearly 400kg each up the hill one by one, using the funicular train and constrained by limited sections of track in running condition, to replace the damaged rails at the middle station area. The rails were extremely heavy and we had to be extremely careful during the transportation process.

“In fact, when the train was stuck in the middle station, we had to engineer the right way to bring it back for repairs. We also needed to clear the track. All this took a lot of discussions; we had to agree on the right work methods so that we could come up with the best solutions and complete the recovery work in the shortest possible time. We went through a very steep learning curve during those few weeks – any mistake could be costly and failure was not an option.

“We did it very fast, taking into account that within those 51 days we also had rain every now and then. People worked in very risky and unknown conditions – for example, there was still some soil movement on the slopes along the funicular track and paths because of the weather conditions at the time, plus boulders were hanging from some locations. But they were committed and passionate to get the train up and running as quickly as possible,” says Cheok.

For him, the landslides on Penang Hill serve as a wake-up call not only for the management of PHC, but also for the people of Penang: “Climate change can impact our surroundings. While we cannot fight against Nature, we want to be better prepared so that we can better respond. When the landslides happened, the first thing I tried to do was to check the availability of rain data and wind speed on the hill. Unfortunately, there was none available. We have been taking things for granted, and that needs to change,” says Cheok.

Winds up at the hill are stronger than those at lower elevations, causing Penang Hill to lose hundreds of trees during the storm.

Large tarps and covers are used to prevent erosion and to stabilise the soil.

Research and education are the things to invest in if things are to turn around. After the landslides, PHC began mapping areas that are prone to landslides, for monitoring purposes. The management also plans to explore ways to educate hill farmers on how to farm the right way. “Knowing the right sort of vegetation to plant after clearing a slope is important. Ideally, the farmers should replant deep-rooted vegetation that spreads horizontally and vertically to hold the soil. We also need to educate them about setting up a proper drainage system that can channel water properly; obviously, we cannot build drains all over the hill and forest – that would be impractical,” says Cheok.

Rubbishing the idea that development on the hill had triggered the landslides, Cheok says such a notion is oversimplifying the situation: “People keep talking about development on the hill, but there is nothing of this sort. There are no major developments on Penang Hill. Having said that, there is also no such thing as zero development – the infrastructure needs to be improved so that people can move from one place to another safely. What we need to do is to have very careful sustainable development to keep enhancing our facilities the right way, and be more prepared for climate change.”

Workers using hand tools to hack large boulders.

Workers repairing the railway of the funicular train. Each rail weighs nearly 400kg.

Efforts are underway to list Penang Hill as a Unesco Biosphere Reserve. (The Unesco World Network of Biosphere Reserves lists designated protected areas, each known as a biosphere reserve, which demonstrate a balanced relationship between people and nature.) “Our chief minister, Lim Guan Eng, is very committed to preserving and conserving Penang Hill. We are applying to be listed as a Unesco Biosphere Reserve; the intent is not merely to be on the list, but to preserve the hill. Therefore, notions about overdeveloping Penang Hill negate our efforts,” Cheok says.

Moving forward, Cheok hopes to connect with the community by fostering participatory dialogue, knowledge sharing, the exchange of experiences and know-how, and the promotion of best practices to improve the management’s ability to cope with climate change.

“We need to build a strong knowledge base from a scientific, engineering and historical point of view to learn about the impact of climate change on the hill, such as what happens when a typhoon hits,” he says. “For example, when the recent storm happened, many trees on the slopes of the hill were uprooted, and together with the unusual heavy rainfall, spiralled more landslides and debris avalanches. We need to learn where the weak spots are and why they are weak spots. That way, we can figure out a better strategy to reconstruct.

“We will engage scientists and academics and be innovative in our approach. Hopefully, by understanding the hill better, we can do a better job in preserving it for future generations.”

Emilia Ismail is a freelance writer and bedtime storyteller for her two-year-old son. Her works can be found in The Star, Penang Monthly, Eksentrika, and most recently, Penang Global Tourism.

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