Sabah water villages are perpetual fire traps

KOTA KINABALU: Two water villages in Sabah that were destroyed by fires within the space of a week bring to the fore the question of the safety of the people living in such settlements that have long been a fire hazard.

Yesterday, 302 houses in a water village at Kampung Air Hujung in Semporna were razed in a massive fire, leaving more than 2,000 people homeless.

On July 24, more than 700 people were left without a roof over their heads after 150 houses in a water village near Kampung Cenderamata 2, Likas, were gutted in a fire. Earlier on June 27, some 100 houses in a water settlement at Kampung Gas, Sandakan, were destroyed in a fire.

Sabah Fire and Rescue Department (JBPM) statistics showed that since 2014, there had been 41 cases of fire involving water villages in the state that resulted in the destruction of 1,585 dwellings.

In 2014, nine such fires, which destroyed 49 houses, were recorded; in 2015 (seven fires and 380 houses destroyed); 2016 (12 fires and 392 units destroyed) and in 2017 (nine fires and 364 units destroyed).

The spate of blazes is a cause for concern for the people who live in water villages in Sabah because, besides the risk of losing their homes, their lives are also at stake.

Scattered

Sabah JBPM also finds the situation worrisome as there are thousands of water villages scattered all over Sabah’s coastal areas. The department has classified them into three types of settlements – traditional water villages with legal land ownership and populated by Malaysian citizens; illegal water villages built by squatters; and water villages where land is jointly owned by legal residents and illegal squatters.

“There’s not much difference in the (physical) characteristics of the water villages found in Semporna, Sandakan or Tawau,” said Sabah JBPM director Nordin Pauzi, adding that the wooden houses in these settlements were built in an unplanned and haphazard manner.As such, it was not impossible for fire incidents to continue to occur at the various water villages, he said.

“Since there’s no detailed planning, safety measures go unheeded. The residents themselves determine what kind of building materials to use and also the height, size and layout of the structures. These things are based on their needs and not in accordance with any regulatory requirement,” he said.

Moreover, the fact that the safety requirement for private houses built in water villages is not covered by the Uniform Building By-Laws 1984 makes it all the more convenient for squatters or landowners to build such structures haphazardly.

And, since they are constructed completely out of wood, the houses are all the more in danger of being gutted when a fire breaks out. Even the jetties in their surroundings are made of wood.

“Due consideration must be given to the construction of jetties and pathways because the fires also cause the destruction of wooden jetties and bridges that are meant to serve as escape routes for the villagers. This can be dangerous because when the entry and exit points are affected it will complicate our rescue efforts,” explained Nordin.

Holistic

Nordin said the water village fire issue must be viewed holistically by all the parties involved to avoid the recurrence of such tragedies.

The issue covers land ownership policies or boundary rights; approval and control over the development; and provision of basic amenities like electricity and water, including fire safety measures.

“It’s not fair for Sabah JBPM to bear total responsibility for the safety of the water villages because it involves others as well,” he said.

He stressed that fire prevention efforts should begin at the household-level because individual awareness would have a bigger impact and can also help to cultivate a culture of safety among the villagers. When the safety awareness is inculcated in the inhabitants, they are bound to exercise more care when carrying out activities like cooking, storing and using flammable materials, using electrical appliances and installing electrical wiring.

Nordin also said that the time has come for water villages to heed JBPM’s recommendation to them to set up their own community fire unit and Volunteer Fire Squad.

“The department needs the help of community leaders who can go around creating more awareness on the need to implement the voluntary programme in the water villages for the benefit of the villagers,” he said.

His department, he added, was ready to provide guidance and basic information on fire-fighting techniques and use of fire equipment in the hope that early intervention by the community fire unit and Volunteer Fire Squad would help reduce the extent of damage and save lives in the event of a fire. — Bernama

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