Recently, Tenaga Nasional Berhad (TNB) found itself in the news again, when it tried to appeal a lawsuit brought by the residents of Bertam Valley, Cameron Highlands to the Federal Court. However, the Federal Court ended up dismisssing TNB’s leave for application in the lawsuit.
If the name Bertam Valley rings a bell, that’s probably because you might be thinking about a flash flood incident that happened sometime in October 2013. The flash flood took the lives of four residents in Bertam Valley, who are mostly farmers btw (and not to be mistaken as orang asli like in a separate TNB Cameron Highlands issue), and damaged over 10 houses.
But how did it come to this in the first place?
TNB seemingly had no choice but to flood Bertam Valley, altho they did try to warn residents
It all started on the evening of the 22nd October 2013 when it rained heavily and continuously in Bertam Valley. The rain had caused the water level in Sultan Abu Bakar dam – which was located near the Bertam Valley settlement – to increase rapidly… by 13 times(!). The rain had also caused the water level in the Ringlet lake (which also serves as the reservoir) near the Sultan Abu Bakar dam, to increase as well.
According to TNB’s then President/CEO, Datuk Seri Azman Mohd, the rain brought huge volumes of water to the lake, together with solid wastes, debris and siltation. And when this happened, TNB had no choice but to open up the dam’s spillage gates to discharge surplus water from the dam, which would later unfortunately flow into the Sungai Bertam.
Now the dam was supposed to have automatically discharged surplus water from the dam but since the water level was increasing rapidly to 3,508m – the normal water level is 3,498m – TNB decided to manually open the spillage gates and release the water in stages. And, according to Azman, even more destruction could have been caused if TNB were to wait for the spillage gates to open automatically. So without much of a choice, TNB allegedly followed safety protocol, but this would still have devastating effects on Bertam Valley.
Sungai Bertam still overflowed despite TNB’s attempts at controlling it, causing a mud flood downstream of the river where the residents lived. TNB claimed that it had warned the residents by ringing the sirens before it opened the dam gates. And TNB apparently did that three times too; at midnight, 1am and 2.45am.
“The siren was sounded to alert the residents before the water was released, and rescue operations started as the water was reaching waist high at about 2am.” – Cameron Highlands OCPD DSP Wan Mohd Zahari Wan Busu told The Star.
However, the residents claimed that they did not hear the sirens; many were asleep, and it was raining heavily. And by the time they did hear it, they didn’t have enough time to relocate and move their belongings to higher ground.
“…They should have done more to alert the people. At that hour, people are sleeping and sounding the siren is not enough. The authorities should also have known that releasing such a huge amount of water would have an adverse effect,” – Datuk S.K Devamany, former Cameron Highlands MP, as quoted by The Star in 2013
And because of that, 100 residents of Bertam Valley decided to sue TNB for negligence. But before we get to the court’s decision, which we have spoiled earlier on in the intro #ihatecilisos, we also found out that…
TNB kinda knew that this was gonna happen
As it turns out, the 2013 incident wasn’t the first flash flood incident in the area. Back in May 1988, the area was flooded when TNB were operating the gates of the Sultan Abu Bakar dam. This flood wasn’t as bad as the 2013 incident tho, according to DSP Wan, but it somewhat proved that TNB kinda know that incidents like this are bound to happen.
And this might be true because, back when they built the Sultan Abu Bakar dam in 1965, a local study has classified the dam as ‘a large dam having a high downstream hazard‘. While constructing the dam, TNB noticed the rapid sedimentation in the Ringlet Lake. And because of that, TNB had to reduce the capacity to store the water by 50%.
“With the reduced storage capacity in the reservoir it is expected that more frequent operation of the gates for control spilling will occur.” – Sustainability of Hydropower Reservoir as Flood Mitigitaion Control: Lesson learned from Ringlet Reservoir, Cameron Highlands, Malaysia.
Not only that, the studies also pointed out that due to sedimentation, the dam has to frequently operate their spillway gates to prevent from water spilling over the dam.
And because of this, Azman mentioned that nobody should be living near the path of the dam’s water release.
“No one should have lived in the path of the dam’s water release and the weather elements, together with the development activities, had introduced greater unpredictability to the situation (referring to the 2013 mud flood).” – Azman, excerpt from Malay Mail.
Despite Azman’s claims, the Bertam settlement was eventually built a few years after the dam was built. And, according to water management expert Dr Ahmad Zaharuddin Sani Ahmad Sabri, residents at the Bertam Valley were allegedly throwing rubbish into the river and water reservoir. Ahmad mentioned that one tonne of solid waste consisting of bottles, wood products and even old furniture was retrieved from the Ringlet lake every single week.
TNB reportedly had to spend a whopping RM40 million on dredging works in 2013 itself to remedy the problem, compared to the RM120 million spent for the same purpose between 2001 and 2013 (that’s like about RM14mil per year). So it might make sense why TNB is said to have used agricultural activities and disposal of garbage to defend itself in the court case against it.
However, TNB lost the court case. That wasn’t the end of it tho, as TNB decided to appeal the decision, but that didn’t end in their favour either. TNB then decided to give it one last go, and appealed to the Federal Court, but….
The Federal Court didn’t let TNB pursue the case
Just last year, the High Court ruled that TNB was liable in causing the flash flood in the 2013 incident in Bertam Valley. Although Azman claimed that TNB’s decision was to prevent greater damage onto the residents of the Bertam Valley, Judge Datuk Nordin Hassan concluded that what TNB did was not the right decision.
He also added that TNB didn’t manage the Ringlet reservoir and were not equipped with necessary instruments to prevent such incidents from happening.
“To me, this instrument should be installed at the very beginning of its operation to assist and maintaining the appropriate water level at the dam and to ensure the volume of the water to be released if necessary.” – Nordin told Malay Mail.
Despite Nordin’s decision, TNB decided to appeal in the Court of Appeal to set aside the High Court decision in Nov 2018 but it lost the appeal too. And just recently, TNB had applied a leave to the Federal Court (basically requesting the Federal Court to set aside the High Court decision) but the Federal Court dismissed the application of leave. Long story short, the case is closed and TNB lost.
The residents, on the other hand, were reportedly awarded RM50,000 costs by the High Court and RM20,000 costs by the Court of Appeal in the process.
And ever since the 2013 incident, TNB has sorta learned its lesson. They’ve been cleaning and maintaining the reservoir and dam, with TNB generation division (asset operations) senior manager Roslan Abd Rahman also adding that the Sultan Abu Bakar dam can now only hold 2.7 million cubic metres, which is far less than its actual capacity due to sedimentation.
But this is not only happening to the Sultan Abu Bakar dam. TNB apparently owns two more dams in Cameron Highlands which are the Ulu Jelai Hydroelectric dam (we’ve mentioned this dam in our previous article) and Susu dam. And as it turns out, both dams were also showing signs of sedimentation in 2016, despite being very new at that time.
Does this mean there’s still a risk of a major flood in Cameron Highlands cos of TNB?
Well, perhaps not. And that’s because TNB has been conducting a flood evacuation drill yearly. TNB takes this action to prepare residents of the valley, related agencies like the Malaysian Civil Department and TNB themselves whenever there’s a need to release the water from the dam during a natural disaster.
Having said that, if the same incident were to happen again (touch wood), at least, by now, everyone in the Bertam Valley would be prepared for what’s to come. Although for the sake of the people in Cameron Highlands, hopefully it’ll never have to come to that.