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After the Floods: Where to Put the Money?

As expected the massive floods has triggered an equally massive allocation for flood mitigation to the tune of $893 million in the revised 2015 budget. I may sound like I am being over-critical but I think it is still necessary to note that this planned expenditure – although welcome – can be seen as too little too late.

If the country had invested in an appropriate program of flood mitigation infrastructure and alternative flood alleviation approaches, the severity of the floods would have been much reduced and we would not have suffered so much. It is estimated that the floods caused RM2.9 billion damage to infrastructure. This does not take into account the loss in private property, vehicles, livestock, farms and belongings. Actually if we put together the total flood bill, I will not be surprised if it exceeds RM10 billion!

Clearly the Government has forgotten the adage “An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure” in development planning. Now the country and the tax payer has to foot the bill again for an incompetent and irresponsible government. And I must add, this labelling covers both the state and federal government authorities, and the political parties running the country and affected states. 

Now that the public purse strings on flood mitigation infrastructure are wide open, we can expect that every Ahmad, Wong and Siva (and Charlie and Tanaka) will be putting in their proposals for a piece of the procurement action.

Let me as an old and retired engineer who worked on the Muda Irrigation scheme project with the World Bank in the 1970’s and who has no stake in any construction or engineering concern in the country provide the following suggestions to ensure that the country gets full value from the extraordinary flood mitigation expenditure that will be spent in the next few months and years. 

Guidelines to ensure value for national flood mitigation expenditure

  1. According to the PM’s speech, preference will be given to local contractors. Yes, but don’t forget that there are local contractors and local contractors. Don’t let the NEP get in the way of merit and quality.
  2. Adopt an open tender system for contracts valued above a certain quantum.
  3. Do a rigorous pre-qualification screening of all intending contractors.
  4. Ensure that all proposed contracts be accompanied by maintenance systems that will ensure sustainability of the infrastructure.
  5. Target areas for flood mitigation using scientific, technical, demographic and socio-economic data.
  6. For the medium and long term, set up 2 independent panels working in tandem: one to scrutinize and decide on areas that need priority based on flood risk assessment and socio-economic impact; the second a technical one to decide on type and scale of mitigation infrastructure; cost; etc.
  7. Explore cost effective approaches such as removal of sand from silted river mouths which I have advocated and forest preservation as advocated by others

Unfortunately, these guidelines will not be enough to prevent wastage, abuse, mismanagement and corruption. Alternative approaches will also take time to develop and implement. 

Proposal for Priority Flood Mitigation

To avoid delay in the selection of target areas for rapid remedial action, as well as to overcome the problem of ensuring effective and easy to monitor use of the emergency money, I propose that the priority in expenditure should be directed at dredging and construction of ancillary flood mitigation infrastructure in Sungei Kelantan.

From the damage reports, it is clear that the part of the country which has suffered most of all is Kota Baru and Kelantan. Hence it is a no brainer that the immediate remedial works should focus on that state and that it should become the short term priority of the national flood mitigation plan and expenditure.

It is also clear to me that one of the major causes of the catastrophic flooding in the state is the accumulation of sand at the mouth of Sungei Kelantan where Kota Baru town is situated next to. The enormous quantity of sand and earth amounting to several hundred millions has blocked the outward flow of rain and flood waters thus accounting for the severity of the flooding.

But how can this dredging be done in a cost effective way?

The answer lies in a project which I took part about 30 years ago. My company obtained a contract to dredge sand from Sungei Tiram in Johor to be used to create the beach at Sentosa Resort, Singapore. In the process we not only cleared that river and solved its flooding problem but we also generated jobs and income from the revenue received from Singapore. This was a win-win situation for our two nations.

Similarly, I believe that If we sell the sand taken out from Sungei Kelantan to Singapore and other countries we would gain several billion of ringgit to make up for the growing shortfall in government funds. At the same time, if properly planned, the dredging will eliminate our flooding problem.

This win-win situation extends beyond the economic cost benefit analysis and external relations consideration.  It will also improve the relationship between the BN federal government and the opposition Pas-held state.

Finally, most important of all, it will focus help on the mostly Bumiputra population of Kelantan which has suffered most from the flooding calamity, and who are in need of immediate relief.   

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