What i learnt from building a wall to protect my house.
I live in Malaysia, in a beautiful house in the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur. Our house is nestled between a lovely a lovely park with a hill, and two similar houses with obviously wealthy owners by the looks of the cars in their respective driveways.
During the rainy season, the entire region is drenched by massive rainfall that existing drainage infrastructure increasingly struggles to absorb. A quick research on the issue points towards the combined effects of climate change (more intense rainfall over shorter periods of time), unregulated urbanization and poor infrastructure planning.
All this was a distant concern until our house got flooded last month… 3 times in less than 2 weeks. 13 cm of water everywhere in the house made the water management question much more tangible for me.
After the first flood, we had a civilized reaction. Contacting the owner and the strata management to discuss the issue and the possible solutions. Within days, we found out that the park behind our house had drainage problems and the municipality had put out a tender to fix the problem. We also found out that both our neighbors, when building beautiful terraces, had blocked all 8 water drains on their property, as well as partly covered some drains from the public footpath. Surely accidentally.
We didn’t feel a sense of urgency at this point as ‘it had never happened before’ so the probability of it happening again soon was low. Besides, the strata manager — also resident from the same compound — wasn’t eager to investigate the neighbors’ constructions which surprised us until he confessed that he had done the same in his own house so… ‘doing this was ok’. By that time, our house got flooded a second time.
With 2 flooding in 6 days, we were a bit more legitimate to demand action and the decision was made to fully re-open the drains on the public pathway by demolishing a tiny portion at the neighbors’ terraces. Having observed the water patterns around our house for a while, we knew this wouldn’t be enough but we were short of arguments when told that “we had to wait and see if it worked”. Surely enough, the next day we had another 5 cm of water in the house.
This was tipping point.
The only quick and effective way to protect our house was to build a wall around it; and the wall had to be a bit taller than the neighbors to prevent ‘their water’ from flowing into ‘our property’. At this point, we just wanted the problem to go away and to stop living in fear of another flood. Within 3 days, we had a 25 meters long wall ceiling our property (welcome to Asia!).
Looking at this wall through the window as I write, I feel both relieved and ashamed.
Relieved because I have restored a sense a safety for myself, my loved ones and my belongings. But ashamed because I have done what I spend my life helping my client not to do: find a partial solution to a systemic problem, push the issue into someone else’s backyard (literally this time), and hope that the issue won’t bite me back in some way before the end my tenancy. I abdicated my collective responsibility to selfishly focus on my here and now.
In itself, this story is a beautiful parable for climate change and how we deal with it. It is slowly becoming tangible in our everyday life because we have failed to appropriately reverse it or prepare for it. The lack of collective ability to take long term and systemic measures is pushing ordinary people to make self centered decisions and enter a deadly pattern of survival of the fittest.
I didn’t want to build a wall. I don’t believe in solving problems by building walls. But now it is built, what would need to happen so we could take it down?
- We would need individual property owners to reconsider the impact of their decisions on the community. More generally, we would need to restore shared ownership of collective issues.
- We would need to zoom out from the immediate neighbors and consider the area or even the city. More generally, we need to always re-contextualize issues.
- We would need local politicians, policy makers, scientists and communities to have mature dialogue about long term issues and to make and support brave decisions. More generally, we need better and more systematic mechanisms for cross sector collaboration and community engagement.
- We would need short term infrastructure adjustments and long-term infrastructure planning involving more scientists and communities and less private interests. More generally, we need to re-habilitate purpose driven and multi-generational decision making.
In a nutshell, we would need more long-term and systemic thinking. This won’t happen by default, but it can happen by design.