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Lessons from flooding tragedy

Posted on January 15, 2012, Sunday

WIDESPREAD flooding, triggered by incessant heavy downpours, claimed two young lives in Kuching last week – Kho Ying Qi, a sixth former from SMK Batu Lintang, and Herman Sihas, a cashier from a petrol station at Jalan Rock.

Ying Qi, 19, drowned when she was swept away by strong currents after falling into a monsoon drain near the petrol station. She had earlier got out of her stalled car and was wading in knee-high flood water towards a nearby bus-stop when tragedy struck.

Herman, 29, suffered the same fate when he made a heroic but vain attempt to save the drowning schoolgirl. His body was found two days later, about 2km from the site of the accident. Ying Qi’s body has yet to be recovered.

In the aftermath, there were calls for action to prevent similar accidents recurring. The voice for fences or railings to be put up at highly populated areas, especially those drained by uncovered sewage systems, is getting louder. This is not altogether unexpected.

Many would agree with SUPP president Datuk Seri Peter Chin’s statement that as a away to prevent loss of lives during a deluge, some form of fences or railings should be put up at localities with open storm drains.

Indeed, the tragedy of the past week should serve as a useful lesson. Foremost is the fact that far-sighted planning is crucial to help prevent unnecessary disasters. And a lot of grief
and sorrow can be avoided if public safety measures are planned and carried out with forethought.

Of course, no one can be absolutely prescient. But one can anticipate and prevent adversities by planning with vision. With a proactive approach, action can at least be taken to keep people out of harm’sway during natural calamities such as flooding or landslides which are common weather-induced occurrences in the state.

As Chin pointed out, when people got caught in rushing flood waters, fences or railings erected along open monsoon drains and sewers would enable them to spot and avoid the dangerous points in the vicinity, thus preventing accidents.

The tragedy also drew comments from the opposition.  Bandar Kuching MP Chong Chieng Jen believed the sad episode was preventable if handrails, normally built within the city limits, were provided in areas that needed them most – in this instance, apparently along uncovered monsoon drains.

According to Chong, JKR’s Urban Storm Water Management manual contains guidelines clearly specifying that open drains at least 0.9m deep must have a 1.2m high handrail fence on both sides to prevent public access. The local council (MBKS) also has similar guidelines for drains of at least 1.4m deep.

To be fair though, when the local council erected fences or railings to curb the escalating incidence of snatch theft in and around Kuching, there was instant hue and cry over how the move would destroy the beauty of the city and make it look hammed in.

We dare say all the criticisms must have caused the local council to balk somewhat in its plan to put up more fences or railings – even along monsoon drains.  And why not? It’s a natural reaction. Anyone in the same position would have reacted likewise.

Ironically, there are now calls for the installation of more fences and railings. Some would argue if such barriers put up to deter snatch thieves made the city look like a barrack, then those put up along monsoon drains to prevent flooding mishaps were no different.

Such an analogy – apart from making a spurious point – is incongruous vis-à-vis safeguarding public safety. What really matters is rising above the argy bargy and recognising the need to fight snatch theft and prevent unnecessary flooding accidents. Both are equally important and should be pursued with the same vigour. If putting up fences or railings really helps, so be it.

Ever notice how solutions always become so much clearer after the event. It’s easy to say something is right or wrong with hindsight. The ability to recognise the realities, possibilities or requirements of a situation, event or decision appears second nature after its occurrence. It’s no different
from saying had only we known, we would have done it differently. The truth is we do not and cannot know but to forestall misfortune, we can plan with foresight.

Hindsight bias is the inclination to see events that have occurred as more predictable than they, in fact, were before they took place. What it really means is one should learn from the past, live the present, and focus on the future.

In planning for public safety, learning from experience – both good and bad – is a key ingredient. Viewed from this angle, putting up fences or railings to save properties and lives from street thugs and natural calamities seems not such a bad idea after all – with the benefit of hindsight, one might add.

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