It’s wise to be before the event, not after it

MY instant reaction to the report in The Borneo Post on July 7 about the warning sirens being installed in the villages below the level of the Bengoh Dam near Kuching was ‘Oh, damn it!’ There was a report early this year that a small crack mark had been seen and photographed on the wall of that dam.

All a lay person can say is, ‘Touch wood.’

When I told a laksa buddy about this black spot, he reacted with the Malay saying, “Malang tiada berbau” (misfortune has no smell). He continued with the current popular mantra, “Who would have thought that the mighty Barisan Nasional would lose the 14th general election? The impossible was possible.” I had to stop him from getting further worked up by throwing some cold water on his political tirade.

The diversion worked.

Although the two issues are not on the same plane – one is  political and the other structural – yet hydro dams have been known to collapse. The conventional wisdom is that it is better to be wise before the event. In this respect, the authority, Kuching Water Board, has done something sensible. All the villages below the dam site will be fully installed with warning sirens so people can evacuate somewhere safe – provided they have time. A broken dam releases a huge rush of water that travels fast!

While details of the precautionary measures are not widely known among the general public, it would be useful if other measures are also made known – the evacuation facilities (boats, vehicles, halls, medics, control centres, etc). And, most importantly, the timeframe. And include some advice on what other people like us can do to help.

The authorities must assure the people that the Bengoh reservoir is good for many years to come; the villagers below it want assurance that they are safe to live where they have been since they moved into the area. The rest of us in Kuching, who drink water from the dam, are assured of the supply of good clean water, always as long as the dam is still intact.

Risks everywhere

Ok, so living below a dam involves a certain amount of risk; does that mean all the rest of us are 100 per cent safe? Tall buildings such as office blocks or condominiums usually have a plan in case of fire. The occupants are briefed on what to do and what not to do. For instance, they must not use the lift and take only with them the most important documents (don’t forget the wife), leaving the rest behind. But when there is a fire drill, do all the inhabitants take part?

They tell us that ‘flying is safer than driving’. That may be so, but passengers on board an aircraft are briefed on what to do in case of an emergency before each and every flight. Put the oxygen mask on yourself before you do with the child next to you, etc. And don’t panic.

The move to install sirens at the various villages below dams – any dam – is long overdue. There are longhouses and bazaars along the rivers where hydropower dams have been built in the upper reaches of Batang Ai, Rajang, and Balui. Can’t similar precautionary measures be installed there in order to warn the people below the dam sites to evacuate in time of something unimaginable but not impossible to happen?

I assume that all these safety measures have been thought out by the people who built these monstrous reservoirs. In their expertise we trust – the dam consultants and contractors and the materials used; the aircraft pilots and the types of aircraft that they fly; the condominium builders and their equipment installed. But precautionary measures such as the sirens would be an additional assurance of safety.

One engineer told me that no one can guarantee 100 per cent safety in anything the engineers do. They are 99 per cent right but the 1 per cent that can go wrong usually does so at the wrong place, at the wrong time. Remember the fire that burnt down the apartments in London; remember the missing Malaysian plane; remember the many disasters that we have seen and many people have experienced in many parts of the world – all man-made. The natural disasters which occur are beyond human ability to control; but the construction of dams, of apartments, of office blocks and of other high rise buildings are to some extent subject to human fallibility.

Let’s hope that the people who live and work below the dam sites at Bengoh Reservoir, and those below the hydropower schemes at Batang Ai, Murum, and Bakun will be safe forever. For those Baram folk, who rejected the Baram dam proposal, you need not worry for now. You have some other worries that come from another human-made problem. You know what I mean. Those below the proposed Baleh Dam can read between the lines.

Comments can reach the writer via [email protected]

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