PUB knew canal was not big enough but didn’t act?

I don’t expect to have no floods in Singapore, and I think Singaporeans are willing to forgive the occasional lapse in planning that leads to floods of this nature. But I would have expected at least an ounce of contrition on the part of the Minister for his ministry’s failure to act on a known problem in time. Instead, Singaporeans just got excuses and extreme examples. “Sorry” seems to be the hardest word for our leaders to say.

Environment Minister Yaacob Ibrahim attributed last Thursday’s floods in Bukit Timah to a “freak” event that occurs “once in 50 years”.

He said: “What happened was very unusual. The intensity was tremendous.”

Flood waters partially submerged ground-floor buildings and cars. The Straits Times carried a picture of a car in car park with the water mark reaching almost the side view mirrors. The flooding occurred along two stretches of Bukit Timah Road — from Coronation Road to Third Avenue and from Wilby Road to Blackmore Road. The damage from all this has yet to be tallied.

A businessman TODAY interviewed remarked: “This is like those news footage you see of floods in Manila or Jakarta. This is a prime housing area. I don’t understand how the flooding could have happened.”

According to a PUB spokesman, the heavy rainfall caused the 1st Diversion Canal from the main Bukit Timah canal to burst its banks. The canal was built 37 years ago, in 1972.

I was therefore surprised was to hear the Minister say: “We knew the diversion canal was not big enough to take this.”

How long has the Minister known the canal was not big enough to handle heavy rains of this nature? I used to live in Bukit Timah in the 80s and 90s, near Coronation Road. Floods along that stretch of Bukit Timah Road would also occur then during heavy rainfall. I would have thought that 20 years was sufficient time to rectify the drainage problems. Apparently not.

It seems that someone has been sitting on this for years. According to the PUB spokesman, the agency is now only in the tendering stage to engage engineers to widen the canals in the Bukit Timah area. The spokesman said that construction is not expected to start until at least the third quarter of 2010.

PUB, the national water agency, has called for tenders for an engineering consultant to widen the

canals in the Bukit Timah area in anticipation of increased stormwater run-off from upcoming developments in the area, a spokesman said.

Construction is expected to start by the third quarter of next year.

The Minister seemed rather dismissive of the seriousness of this performance lapse. He said: “It is not possible… to plan for every event. Thursday’s weather… occurs once in 50 years. If we design for the largest rainfall or highest tide, then we are going to have huge canals in Singapore.

This is typical of the extreme rhetoric that our Ministers like to use. There are many factors that go into planning for heavy rainfall, including making sure there are enough diversion canals and ensuring that the drainage is unblocked. It’s not just about having “huge canals”.

In any case, what’s wrong with planning for the largest rainfall? Floods are serious and potentially dangerous events that are usually preventable. Millions of dollars of property could be damaged in floods, and lives could even be lost.

Would the Minister be saying the same thing if a child got swept away and drowned in the flood on Thursday?

I don’t expect to have no floods in Singapore, and I think Singaporeans are willing to forgive the occasional lapse in planning that leads to floods of this nature. But I would have expected at least an ounce of contrition on the part of the Minister for his ministry’s failure to act on a problem that has been known for years. Instead, Singaporeans just got excuses and extreme examples.  “Sorry” seems to be the hardest word for our leaders to say.

28 thoughts on “PUB knew canal was not big enough but didn’t act?”

  1. What do you expect from a Minister who can easily allow his Permanent Secretary (PS)to go on leave for a continuous stretch of five full weeks without blinking an eye lid?

    His PS, Tan Yong Soon, ex-military intelligence chief in Mindef, also had the cheek to boast that

    “Taking five weeks’ leave from work is not as difficult as one thinks. Most times, when you are at the top, you think you are indispensable. But if you are a good leader who has built up a good team, it is possible to go away for five weeks or even longer.”

    His statements implied that other PSs are not good leaders and did not build up a good team, and therefore they could not go away for five weeks or even longer!

    Basically, after this ‘freak’ minister’s utterances (reinforced by the Tan Yong Soon incident, and the failure to tackle the Dengue Fever and Malaria mosquitoes issues), there is no doubt in my mind that the Ministry of Environment is a switched-off ministry that should be closed down and its functions be amalgamated into other equally switched-off ministries, such as the MND, MICA, MCDYS, and Min of Transport.

    If the PAP puts a Malay Minister there just to show that Malays are also treated equally, then it has forgotten that quality of leadership is of utmost importance in every ministry.

    Playing politics to cater to sentiments of a particular race should not be a criteria in this fast-speed fast-changing age, especially so for a system that emphases meritocracy as the foundation of its personnel recruitment and management.

  2. New Orleans’ failure to plan for a Cat 5 Hurricane resulted in the human tragedy that followed the wake of Katrina. I am less annoyed with the minister’s failure to be contrite than with his failure to promise to find engineering solutions to similar future problems.

    Widening the canal is, imho, not the only solution. He was probably talking off the top of his head rather than being on top of things when he said “If we design for the largest rainfall or highest tide, then we are going to have huge canals in Singapore”. I am not a civil engineer, but I can imagine the use of a high-pressure pumping system that could be activated to push water out to sea under scenarios where high rainfall coupled with high tides threaten to overwhelm the basic canal system.

  3. You used to live in Bukit Timah and know how it used to flood often before the flood alleviation scheme was completed in the 1980s. You will also know how it has rarely happened since. To the businessman who didn’t understand how the flooding could have happened, all he needs to do is to wind back the clock 30 years.

    What’s wrong with planning for the largest rainfall? With unlimited resources, any problem can be dealt with in the idealistic way – but most problems have to be dealt with limited resources. The statistical outlier is an extreme event in any probabilistic model. As with most things in life, it is a matter of balance.

    Millions of dollars of property could be damaged in floods, just as many more millions of dollars of property could be spent dealing with extreme events that happen twice in a lifetime. Again, it is a matter of balance. A solution that deals with 99.999% of the potential outcomes is by most counts an optimal solution.

  4. Residents of Bukit Timah should remember that the last flash flood was in January 2007 – hardly a “once in 50 years” occurrence.

    Older residents of the same area would tell the Minister that the last GREAT flood there was in 1978 and before that, in 1968. Again, hardly a once in 50 years occurrence.

    I do not know if Minister Yaacob Ibrahim is unaware of the basic facts of the situation, or just in an unhelpfully hyperbolic mood, in a state of amnesia, or woefully underinformed by his ministry analysts and political handlers. The Ministry of Environment and the people of Singapore deserve someone who can do a better job.

  5. Citizen of Freak City – Good you remembered about the cooking school perm sec. Perhaps he was away on holiday and therefore couldn’t approve the tender, which was the reason for the delay.

    Lee Chee Wai – Yes, I’m sure a pumping system will be a solution other than widening canals.

    contrarian – “To the businessman who didn’t understand how the flooding could have happened, all he needs to do is to wind back the clock 30 years.”

    We are now a 21st century developed country. We should not be comparing our situation with 30 years go and pat ourselves on our back for the improved situation now. When I lived in Bukit Timah, it flooded, but not that frequently. I’m not so sure the drainage situation now is that much more improved since 1990, judging from this latest flood.

    “With unlimited resources, any problem can be dealt with in the idealistic way”

    The ‘limited resources’ excuse should be used selectively, and only for non-critical situations. I think a few millions of dollars is worthwhile to prevent the loss of one life. Anyway, as Akikonomu pointed out, this flood may not be such a ‘freak’ event after all.

    Akikonomu – I suspect the PUB officers just pulled that ’50 years’ figure out from the air or used it as a figure of speech to find an excuse for not planning for the flood.

  6. Hi Gerald,
    Those my age would remember that Bt Timah floods everytime there was significant rain.
    I remember I was stranded in a flood on my O levels (1976).
    Compared to those days, it can be said that flooding is not a major problem.
    Unless proven otherwise, I think this is a freak incident and I would take the Minister’s explanation at face value.
    There are other battles more worthy of fighting.

  7. What are the other battles more worthy of fighting? Fighting for whose interests, from whose perspective?

    The greatest battle that the people should be fighting against is the battle of incompetency that demands to be paid the world’s highest salary, through leegalised ‘corruption’. That is the biggest ill in our society today.

    All the other ills are the off-shoots of this core incompetency.

  8. Bukit Timah is a prime real estate area: good schools, SM Goh lives there, as does Tony Tan. Lots of houses with guard houses outside in that area. I suspect that the cause of his freak storm may be in part due to the overdeveloping of the area because of its association with social mobility. This has drastically reduced soil retention rates, as well as climate change.

    Back when an even worse flood than this happened in 1978, we still were partly rural, and our infrastructure was improving but nowhere as good. That the canal has served us well for 3 decades we must be thankful for, but this is not about taking for granted that what we have will always be.

    We are all collectively responsible for events like this. As long we mistakenly believe we are a “garden city” just cos we plant trees, and that we respect the environment just because we have the sanitation service working round the clock, we will not be able to grasp the magnitude to which we have to be responsible for our environment in Singapore and in the world.

  9. Dr Huang – I considered carefully the tone and content of this blog post. Initially when I read the report in the mainstream media, I too shrugged it off and figured it was really a freak incident. But as it was unveiled that PUB knew about the problem (presumably for years) and had only just called for a tender, something seemed amiss. Coupled with the Minister’s hyperbole, it seemed more obvious they were trying to gloss over a mistake.

    While I won’t consider this a ‘battle’ to be fought, I think there needs to be a bit more accountability than just dismissing it as a freak incident.

  10. Clearly hnming has done some research and found several papers written by university researchers and companies preparing at least 5 years ago for the tender, analysing the phenomena of flooding in Singapore. They’re all available on the internet. And yes, they all seem to correlate modern flooding with urban over-development.

    Gerald: If one thinks this is a battle or at least an issue that deserves attention, then one ought to devote at least some time finding out what has been said and done about this.

    Dr Huang: If one thinks this is not a battle worth fighting, at least one should not become a know-nothing, or encourage others to become know-nothings.

  11. Can someone check whether the flash flood coincided with high tide?

    In my opinion, what should be installed are pump stations strategically placed and programmed to go into action the moment water reaches a certain height/level not only at Bukit Timah but in other flood prone areas as well. The flood water can be channelled via the pumps to a reservoir, to the sea or even the underground sewerage system – any place that can take it. All areas prone to ponding (ie collection of water) should be identified and catered.

  12. The Ministry of Environment and Water Works seems to be sleeping for the past 20 years or so. Don’t they have top brain scholars to plan and look ahead – to be proactive instead of reactive?

    Why can’t they think of ideas and solutions like the ones suggested above and in the other blogs and forums all over the cyberspace?

    Must be having too much money to count and therefore have no time to plan and foresee the unexpected. MM Lee claimed that they are outstanding talents, my foot!

    It is high time these highly paid scholars be kicked in the butt. Pay cut for all ministers, perm secs, top civil servants and top scholars are in order.

  13. Now let’s take another situation and decide yourself whether it is freak event. How is it that the gov never take global warming and global weather change to perform its planning. Why wait until disaster strike the gov start to do wayang planning and giving lies and nonsense such as “plan next year to resolve flood issue” to pacify the citizens ?

    Now take the IR case. 4 decades ago, Singapore has secret society doing illegal business, and now 4 decade later, the gov is opened the flood gate to amass foreigners that mastermind loanshark and illegal syndicate scam and cheating, can the gov now say that compare to 4 decades ago, Singapore is much better now ? If you open the flood gate then it is bound to cause social issues and increasing crime so do the gov still wait for thing to happen before they do something ? Do they need the criminal to ****** before gov of SinCity start doing something ?

  14. Right. They knew but did not do anything. What are we paying them for? To just sit there, shake leg and collect pay?

    And they call themselves talents?

  15. @Anderson: The current Bukit Timah canal was finished in the 80s to counter flood problems. It has done so very well until recently. Do you know how short a period of time is 20/30 years when it comes to Civil Engineering? Do you know all the painstaking decisions and deliberations involved in carrying out one civil engineering project? Or the years required to assess the level of appropriate changes needed to existing civil engineering projects for them to work?

    @Jezebella: How do you know about something just a few hours before it happens and then do something about it, especially when it is something as big as a flash flood? You expect some kind of Superman to come and lift Bukit Timah Road up from the ground, is it?

  16. hnming – It appears your assessment was the same as PUB’s, that the over-development in the area contributed to the flooding. PUB said they had been “watching it with concern” but weren’t able to address it before the flood struck. I hope it wasn’t just an excuse, though.

    Something doesn’t quite gel with the Minister’s statement. First he said it was a ‘freak event’ and that PUB can’t be planning for the biggest downpour otherwise we’ll have ‘huge canals’. Why then is it that post-flood, they are all swinging into action to widen canals? If he really thought it was a freak event, then he would just sit tight and do nothing right?

  17. Well, despite the “minor” floods every 3-5 years back since the last “big one”, the Bukit Timah canal project has been generally successful.

    That the PUB has been “watching with concern” but unable to effect any changes is rather strange – searching the internet, any reader can find various studies by local and foreign unis, engineers and engineering companies in the past 5 years on a further development project.

    For the “freak event” to morph into “we knew about it” and then to “we’re taking action NOW” – might suggest an attempt to play up the construction project in the minds of the area residents. I’m not saying it’s a pre-election manoeuvre, but I can’t think of any logical explanations at the moment.

  18. First you gotta think about WHO are the residents in that area. I believe. If we get down to thinking at our most cynical, would the party not take action about fixing infrastructure in the area where Tony Tan, SM Goh, and probably many other prominent local businessmen and lawyers have homes, and that features some of the country’s best schools?

  19. “First you gotta think about WHO are the residents in that area. I believe. If we get down to thinking at our most cynical, would the party not take action about fixing infrastructure in the area where Tony Tan, SM Goh, and probably many other prominent local businessmen and lawyers have homes, and that features some of the country’s best schools?”

    Which is what I say that to this gov that they will not do anything to help lesser mortal until they and their expensive elites get hit themselves. Now, this ‘freak event’ occurs, and suddenly this Yaacob, as Gerald highlights, has the wisdom to enlarge the canal when the echelon’s home get affected by the flood ?

    First, this minister tell you that “If we design for the largest rainfall or highest tide, then we are going to have huge canals in Singapore.”. But now, this very minister tell you that it is possible to fix the canal when his own master and colleagues’s home get hit by flood. So in other words, the elite must get hit before they can measure accurately the magnitude of the flood ? So perhaps it is God’s punishment that the place be flooded so that the expensive clowns start doing something on global climate change.

  20. I wonder how many man-hours were spent by the civil servants in MEWR and MICA drafting out submission papers and emails and making phone calls to get the Insing post removed. All of it for nought, because the censorship produced even greater publicity for the blog post. I for one have never gone to the Insing website. Now thanks to MEWR/MICA, I don’t even have to! Hahaha…

  21. hahaha I agree….honestly, I did not even know Mr Brown had a post there or for that matter, Mr Brown had posted something about the flood….now thanks to their “thin skin”…. I know about it….

    Seriously, these ministers must learn to take criticism and roll with it rather than be on the defensive all the time and appearing so small minded.

  22. Once in 50 years, hence no need to prepare?

    This makes no sense at all.
    How about calling complacency and laziness for that?
    So much for a First World country.

  23. If development continues in Singapore like it has been doing , too much concrete and tarmac etc . Then floods will be inevitable , there has to be land for the rain to soak in and gradually be released into drains , rivers etc , not just dumped into canals etc , via drains .
    Seems Singapore is incapable of learning from the errors made in other countries and improving on things .
    Also I agree complacancy and idleness are to blame , also the lack of knowledge and lack of imagination . Officials have forgotten what has happened in the past in Singapore , how nature and soil react and the consequences of urbanisation. Should dtop employing so called ‘talent , and get people with experience and ideas .

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