Penang Pushes on with Flood Mitigation


While the relationship between the federal and state governments continues as a tug-of-war, Penang is embarking upon a host of measures to keep the state safe and dry.

2017 was a challenging year, and it was no exception for state executive councillor Chow Kon Yeow.

Heading the Flood Mitigation portfolio for the state (along with the Local Government and Traffic Management committees), the second half of last year was a hard time to weather.

Ravaged by two unprecedented storms that caused widespread damage to both people and property, Penang has managed to bounce back and dry off, but many still look to the sky in worry every time thunder is heard on the horizon.

While all quarters would love quick solutions to prevent the state from being inundated again, the reality of flood mitigation often lies in well thought-out, methodical measures – both large and small – and a steady flow of funds.

Why it Floods

The term “flash floods” is constantly used when flooding happens in Penang, and Chow explains why: “In Penang, our floods are considered flash floods, but they are not monsoon-related flooding in the sense that the flooding we experience comes and then recedes quickly. Basically, this is because our drainage system is unable to cope with a certain amount of water in a certain span of time – even one hour of intense rainfall is sufficient to flood certain areas in the state,” he says.

In simple terms, rainfall travels from housing estates into bigger monsoon drains which are channeled into rivers and ultimately discharges into the sea.

Chow expounds that insufficient drainage occurs at both the residential level and in the monsoon drains in certain areas in the state. “When you build a housing estate, you need to know your drainage network – meaning where rain will be channelled to reach the sea. Every drainage system has its own carrying capacity – the amount it can carry at a certain time,” he says.

Several factors can overwhelm this capacity, most obviously extreme rainfall in short periods of time and aged drainage systems that can no longer sustain growing populations. Drains that are choked with rubbish cause water to backflow and eventually flood surrounding areas.

Aside from that, substandard maintenance of essential infrastructure like pump houses that service low-lying areas and developed flood plains also cause problems when unexpectedly high amounts of rainfall occur.

Additionally, Chow says the role of development in worsening surface runoff cannot be disregarded and that the state’s natural topography should also be noted. “A large criticism from NGOs is that our natural environment has been changed because of development, and this affects its natural ability to absorb water. Green areas that have been turned into paved highways result in surface runoff as the water doesn’t seep into the earth. Water from the upstream carry very fast to the downstream, so there is insufficient time for it to discharge because the water comes in big quantities,” Chow says.

Penang Island’s topography of hills and short rivers does not help the situation: “There aren’t a lot of meandering rivers on the island, compared to Seberang Prai where most of the rivers originate from Kedah, so water there travels a longer distance to the sea. Over on this side, we don’t see rivers longer than a few kilometres, and the hills and coasts are narrow and steep so water comes down very fast. The water travels from the hills right down to the lower flood plains, and a lot of our areas are actually floodplains, which in the geographical sense are meant to flood occasionally,” Chow says.

Getting the Funds

Mitigation efforts – be they the upgrading of drainage systems, desilting, the creation of watercourse infrastructure or other technical endeavours – ultimately cost money, so firstly, one must understand the funding structure in place for fighting floods.

Similar to many other areas of governance, funding for flood mitigation comes from all three tiers of government: federal, state and local. Chow says the federal government – the biggest contributor – channels funds mainly through the Department of Irrigation and Drainage (DID), though other departments also occasionally chip in depending on which areas or industries were affected by the flooding.

The state government also contributes, with reserves commonly channelled through DID as well. Chow adds that special allocations were also considered in the state budget and a total of RM150mil was approved in 2017 for nine high-impact flood projects.

Penang state executive councillor in charge of flood mitigation Chow Kon Yeow referring to a map of catchment areas in George Town.

The bund at Sungai Jarak on the mainland was partially destroyed.

The local government – in Penang’s case, the Penang Island City Council (MBPP) and Seberang Prai Municipal Council (MPSP) – as the custodian of public amenities, also chips in, usually on a small scale through projects that are implemented through DID, the Public Works Department (JKR) and the district offices.

In Penang, however, there is another crucial source of funding that in recent years has played a pivotal role in combating floods in the state: the Drainage Contribution Fund (DCF). Chow says this collection is made up of charges imposed on developers or landowners who submit plans to develop land. “This fund was created in the early 1990s and in the past, the council on behalf of the state government would collect RM10,000 per acre of development, on top of other drainage conditions that would need to be adhered to. Three years ago, when I took over the state’s flood mitigation portfolio, I increased this to RM50,000 per acre so we could get more funding. So, from 2013 to 2017, we collected about RM90mil for this fund. To date, I have spent RM145mil, using some of the balance that was already there,” Chow says, adding that around RM10mil to RM20mil still remains.

With the tug-of-war continuing between Opposition-held states and the BN-led federal government, funds from the national level have slowed to a trickle, forcing Opposition states to get creative in terms of funding. From big to small drainage projects to emergency funds, the DCF has stepped in. In fact, Chow says that some 903 of the total funds the state has spent on combating floods in the last few years have come from this fund.

Current and Planned Projects

This year will see about 50 flood mitigation projects implemented in the state to the tune of RM200mil, Chow says. Out of this amount, RM150mil is coming from the special allocation the state government granted in last year’s budget.

According to Chow, the amount was requested for the implementation of nine major projects that had been studied and planned over the last one to two years. A total of six projects will be carried out in Seberang Prai Central, covering areas like Kampung Tanah Liat Mukim 9, Kampung Permatang Rawa, Bukit Tengah and Taman Mangga. The district will also see the building of two retention ponds in the Alma area, located in Bukit Mertajam.

In Seberang Prai North, the biggest of all the nine projects will be implemented: a RM30mil drainage upgrading project in Mak Mandin, an area synonymous with heavy flooding.

The other two remaining projects are planned for the south-west district – one covering Kampung Naran behind the Penang International Airport, and the other covering areas along the Nipah River and Relau River.

Chow says that all the aforementioned highimpact projects involve works to reduce the risk of flooding as well as elevate current drainage systems. “Generally speaking, the nine projects are in nine different areas and involve rivers, so different works are needed at different parts of the river.

“A lot of our flood mitigation projects are about upgrading the capacity of our drainage systems or building new facilities, like pump houses or retention ponds – structural solutions that would help us channel the water out,” he says, adding that work on the majority of the projects started in February after the announcement of tenders by the state government.”

The north-east district, covering all of George Town, is missing from the list, but Chow says it hardly means that the area is being overlooked. “In all honesty, I am not so worried about that district because I have MBPP to fall back on there. Because of the higher assessment rates the council collects, MBPP has a much bigger budget than MPSP.

“In fact, in the inner city, MBPP is currently running a RM10mil project to build a parallel canal to the Prangin Canal in S10 (South Channel Catchment Number 10). Canals serve one of two purposes: to discharge water out or to retain water, thus keeping it away from the roads. This parallel canal, which spans the length of Prangin Mall – about 100m to 200m – is for the second purpose,” Chow says. He adds that work on the project started around September last year and is expected to be completed by the end of this year.

As for the remaining RM50mil from the RM200mil expected to be spent on flood mitigation works this year, smaller-scaled projects are planned for all over the state. They include deepening and widening bridges, building bunds and flood walls, creating pump houses, as well as installing additional pumps in existing pump houses and relocating utility cables, water pipes and sewage pipes from culverts to increase the capacity of drainage. “We are looking at a one-to-three-year completion date for all the projects, with the nine projects expected to be done in two to three years while the smaller projects should finish sooner,” Chow states.

Mitigation works on Sungai Pinang have long had false starts and delays, though thankfully, the allocation for the second phase of the project has finally been secured.

Where is the Money?

It is hoped that the federal government will step up releasing funds allocated to the state under the Ninth, Tenth and Eleventh Malaysia Plans.

A list of 13 projects, which all involve rivers, was presented to the federal government after the November flood and many are acutely overdue and crucial for the state to minimise future flooding.

Mitigation works on Sungai Pinang, for example, have long had false starts and delays, though thankfully, the allocation for the second phase of the project has finally been secured and Chow states that the tender is expected to be awarded this year. “Phase One of mitigation works on Sungai Pinang was completed over a decade ago and that involved work from the river mouth to Jalan Patani. The next phase is from Jalan Patani to Dhoby Ghaut. But aside from this project, there is no other ongoing federal flood mitigation project in the state,” he says.

Chow explains that Phase Two involves building a barrage, two retention ponds and the rebuilding of at least two bridges – one along Jalan Patani and another along Jalan Perak – to raise them above their high-water marks.

“Sungai Pinang caters to the biggest river basin in the north-east district and passes through the most developed area (in the state), including the city centre. Although it is not the biggest river in Penang, property and economic losses during floods are the greatest here. (From the end of Phase Two,) we now need to move upstream – to Jalan Scotland, Air Itam, Air Terjun, Air Putih and beyond – and this comes to RM504mil. Out of the RM1bil we are asking for from the federal government, half goes to Sungai Pinang,” Chow says.

The remainder of the wish list also involves rivers, from Sungai Perai to Sungai Junjong, Sungai Juru and Sungai Jawi. Chow says that by and large, the list comes from projects listed under previous Malaysia Plans that remain uncompleted. “We see that the change of government in Penang in 2008 largely affected both the number of flood mitigation projects approved for the state under subsequent Malaysia Plans and also the amount given. For example, in Sungai Juru, RM100mil was promised but only RM2mil was given. Usually, projects that are not completed in one Malaysia Plan are brought forward to the next, but this project is completely gone from the list,” he says.

And unfortunately, that project is hardly the exception. Over a dozen flood mitigation projects listed in the Ninth Malaysia Plan were shrunk to approximately half a dozen in the next plan, to just one single project in the current Eleventh Malaysia Plan.

After the two severe floods in the state late last year, this bone of contention between the federal and state government was renewed, with figures on funding being thrown back and forth in the aftermath.

In a written reply in parliament, Natural Resources and Environment Minister Datuk Seri Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar stated that a total of RM2.57bil had been allocated to the state over the last three Malaysia Plans, with RM1.04bil spent.

This, however, contradicted the state DID’s records that out of some RM1.79bil allocated to Penang for floods, only RM443mil had been actually given, Chow says.

With the election fast approaching, it is likely that more disputes on the issue will arise. However, Chow for one, is tired of the fighting. The focus now, he stresses, is to continue with the projects outlined to thwart flooding in the state. “Detailed studies and planning have been ongoing since 2016 to come up with the list of projects we are undertaking this year. We hope to make a big difference in the list of flood-prone hotspots through these works. We have been talking about this for quite some time in the state assembly and work is finally starting on the ground.”

This year will see about 50 flood mitigation projects implemented in the state to the tune of RM200mil. Out of this amount, RM150mil is coming from the special allocation the state government granted in last year’s budget.

Andrea Filmer is a freelance journalist who has lived in the US and Australia but, for reasons unknown to herself, finds it impossible to call anywhere but Penang home.

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