Why Wet Feet, not Happy Feet?

Town Planning

In February and March 2016, newspaper headlines all across Borneo looked something like this: Samarinda flooding spreading; Banjarmasin paralysed by floods, West Kalimantan capital Pontianak hit by flash floods; Kuching’s general hospital evacuated because of flooding; Miri submerged!

One might think someone up there emptied a huge bucket of water on Borneo! The result was terrible. South Kalimantan’s Governor announced 95 flood prone areas, and instructed 13 districts and cities to prepare flood response actions. Tabalong district had 1,840 homes in 25 villages flooded, 205 homes in nine villages in Balangan flooded, 4,715 homes in 166 villages in North Hulu Sungai under water, and 814ha of ricefields damaged.

West Kalimantan’s provinces of Ketapang, Landak, Bengkayang and Melawi were flooded to average depths of 1.5m. Water levels rose 2.5m in Singkawang and Sambas provinces, submerging at least 10,000 homes, forcing 31,000 people to move to higher ground. Two people died.

Central Kalimantan’s Barito river overflowed its banks, flooding the village of Banjar where 13,941 people were affect, and 3,949 homes submerged. In Hulu Sungai village, 3,000 homes and 525ha of farms were inundated.

In Sarawak, floods forced 3,812 people from 939 families to be evacuated, 36 schools closed (affecting 3,678 students). In the state capital Kuching alone, 2,306 people from 506 families were evacuated.

Apart from a lot of wet feet, there was an amazing flood of comments, opinions, complaints and accusations over social media. Between the three countries of Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia, an estimated 2 billion messages and pictures were exchanged over smartphones between January and March. Everybody had something to say, and let us not try and understand what each and everyone said. There were three things that were basically the common conclusions: a) everybody was unhappy, b) everybody wanted somebody to do something about these catastrophic floods that happen every year, and c) these floods are getting worse every year!

One home owner living in Kuching commented “I have lived in my house, by this little river, for 35 years. My house has never flooded. Then last year, they built this huge shopping centre behind my house. This year, my house had half a metre of water in my living room. There must be a relation between this shopping centre and the floods!”

There’s a lot we ordinary people do not know, but this is what we do know. Water will flow. We cannot stop it. The more water, the more flow. Putting a roof over our heads does not make the water any less, it just diverts it from landing on our head and makes it flow somewhere else. Put a dam across a river, and the water in the river remains exactly the same, it simply flows somewhere else. Build walls on the sides of a river makes the river neater, but does not reduce the water one tiny bit. It just moves somewhere else.

This basic principle is not some fantastic new discovery some scientists made. Human beings have known this ever since we first got our feet wet. It will not be an unreasonable assumption then, to expect those who do city planning to know this too. Right? Of course they do! So, if they do, then why do our cities suffer flooding? Something has obviously gone wrong. There can be only two possible explanations as to what might have gone wrong.

The first scenario is that our city planners on Borneo face some challenge they cannot overcome. We can guess that it is not some technical aspect in planning, simply because there is really nothing we cannot overcome with technology. This is a fact, demonstrated by the human race becoming the dominant lifeform on planet earth, and able to travel to the moon and beyond. The conclusion therefore, has to be that, whatever this unsurmountable challenge faced by city planners across the three countries of Borneo is, it is not technical. Someone pray tell us what it is, so we can find a way to solve this critical problem.

The second scenario is that despite the best efforts of our planners at projecting climate and rainfall patterns, there is a sudden and unexplainable huge increase in the amount of water that falls on Borneo. Most of Borneo’s cities are over 150 years old, and therefore we are unprepared for this increase in water, hence flooding destroys property, crops and disrupts our lives.

We ordinary people cannot say which explanation is correct, or whether our flooding problem is actually a combination of both scenarios. However, most of us would probably guess that the first scenario is a more likely explanation than the second…

Whichever the true explanation is, one thing is sure. There is no point spending money developing Borneo’s cities into better places to live in if we cannot protect our cities, and our people, from water. It is also true, perhaps even more, that if we cannot protect our food-growing areas from flooding, we will either starve, or be colonised by someone who can provide us food.