After Klang Valley flood debacle, what needs redesigning? Here’s what an urban city planner proposes

The area around Dataran Merdeka in Kuala Lumpur is submerged by floodwaters amid incessant rain December 19, 2021. — Picture by Firdaus Latif
The area around Dataran Merdeka in Kuala Lumpur is submerged by floodwaters amid incessant rain December 19, 2021. — Picture by Firdaus Latif

KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 10 — Apart from the wrath of mother nature, which was one of the reasons behind the recent flash floods in Kuala Lumpur, urban city planning expert Shuhana Shamsuddin said the design of the city failed to protect it from drowning.

The advocate for urban design said it is time that the government started to seriously take concerted efforts to prevent city centres from future flash floods, rather than allowing the current haphazard development that does not take the disaster into account.

“What is happening now is that there is no coordination between developers, architects and the local councils when it comes to development in the country.

“If you look at how the town planning is done now, they are all working in silos — there is no communication between these few quarters — so they end up endangering their surroundings without knowing it,” Shuhana told Malay Mail in an interview.

Shuhana, who is also president of the Malaysian Urban Design Association said this type of town planning is referred to as “island planning”, where everyone has their own “island” which they then manage as if surrounding neighbours do not matter.

“Our country was beautiful in the past, but in present times, it has become — anywhere there is empty land they put a building there — to maximise land use.

“The government cannot continue with the attitude of business as usual. There is a need for a paradigm shift in how things are done and look at other countries.

"Everyone now is responding to climate change, is Malaysia doing the same? Everyone now is designing with nature, reducing cutting of trees, but we are still building on top of floodwater retention ponds,” she said.

Shuhana was referring to recent news reports where Segambut MP Hannah Yeoh brought up an issue of six flood water retention ponds in Kuala Lumpur that had received approval from the Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL) for development.

This was cited in the Auditor-General’s (A-G) Report 2019 Series 2 which revealed that the KL mayor had approved 943 developments from 2015 up until 2020, which were inconsistent with the Kuala Lumpur City Plan.

The A-G’s report also stated that the change in zoning of land use and density had an impact on the environment which led to reduction of open space, flash floods and traffic congestion.

How to design better?

“Now we have flooding as a problem for the city, before we had Covid-19 where it showed us that we need more open space to prevent crowding.

“Now we need open space to help divert excess water from heavy downpour and at the same time, the current trend all over the world is that people are going for water-sensitive urban design,” she said.

Shuhana explained that water sensitive urban design means that cities are designed with the consideration of creating spaces that can actually absorb excess water from the rain, acting like sponges for the city for the extra water that comes from the rain.

“When there is more open space, this will minimise the amount of tarmac that is blocking the water from being absorbed by the ground.

“The government could also consider other methods of stormwater management, such as canal systems which can receive the extra water,” she said adding that, this is what the government is not doing in the country because they are focused on maximising use of land for buildings.

She pointed out that there are studies which indicate that Malaysia is actually made of cities which are surrounded by either the river or sea.

“Malaysia is actually a country with many waterfront cities. They are either near the river or the sea, which means we are very sensitive to water.

“But if we never acknowledged this, we would not be able to build a city where there is a way that can turn the water around,” she said.

While there are a lot of design solutions, Shuhana said that these can only be implemented with the right approach.

“If we are not approaching our city as a water sensitive city, then the planning that we are using for the city will not be able to prevent it from future disasters,” she said.

In one of the country’s worst floods in history, more than 30,000 people have been evacuated from their homes.

Downpours which started on December 17, lasted for almost three days without stop had caused rivers to overflow, submerging many urban areas and cutting off main roads, leaving thousands of motorists stranded.

The Meteorological Department said that the rainfall on December 18 in Kuala Lumpur had exceeded its average monthly rainfall, with certain places in Kuala Lumpur recording up to 273mm or 363mm in rainfall that day.

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