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.
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.