Let's make Johor Baru flood-free

In mid-November last year, I had limited internet access while on a road trip around Cape Town, South Africa, so when I checked my mail later, I was shocked to see photos of the flash floods in Johor Baru.

The road turned into a river in front of KOMTAR JBCC!
It was almost unbelievable but when I recognised familiar buildings on Jalan Wong Ah Fook, I knew it couldn’t be a hoax.  Sungai Segget had overflowed and the road was a river that had partially submerged cars in murky brown waters.

From a video, I saw workers making futile attempts to build a barricade against water rushing into a basement carpark.  Another shocking video featured foreign workers standing in the flood, holding a live fish as long as a man’s arm!

While I felt a deep sense of loss and sadness for the properties and businesses affected by the flood, flooding was not uncommon at low-lying areas in the city.  The area around Jalan Meldrum, Jalan Siu Nam, Jalan Siu Koon and Jalan Siu Chin and basement carparks there, were notorious for getting flooded.

An archive photo of the JB market situated on an island
at present day Jalan Segget
Many would remember past seasons of super high tides where the water level of the Johor Straits overflowed along the coast onto Jalan Skudai.  It was a seasonal phenomenon that amazed the locals but there was never cause for alarm.  But the flash flood along Jalan Wong Ah Fook on November 16, especially between Menara Public Bank and Komtar JBCC, was however, unprecedented.

In 1960 when our family lived in the staff quarters at Jalan Dato’ Wilson in the compound of the then Johor Baru General Hospital, an unusually high tide on Christmas Day flooded the entire area.  My dad captured photos of guests who arrived for our Christmas party, wading their way through flood waters while kids and great-grandma were ferried to our house by floating on my bath tub!

Dad's photo of our house [guests standing outside!] on
Christmas Day 1960, at Jalan Dato' Wilson
After the November 16 flash floods in the heart of JB, the city suffered yet another smaller flood near Komtar JBCC on Nov 24.  By then Majlis Bandaraya JB (MBJB) and the principal coordinating agency responsible for the Sungai Segget project, Iskandar Regional Development Area (IRDA), were better prepared to deal with it.  MBJB had also distributed notices to the public warning of super high tides between Nov 24 and 30.

MBJB and IRDA are aware that the flash floods were caused by various contributing reasons including continuous heavy rainfall and super high tides.  They also agreed that land reclamation work in the Johor Straits may have also affected tidal currents and caused more silting at the river mouth which inadvertently resulted in poorer drainage run-off from Sungai Segget into the Straits.

Rapid development within the Central Business District also changed major data like the drainage layout system and catchment volume.  From the limited data, it was found that Komtar JBCC is situated in a water sub-catchment area and more prone to flash floods due to its gradient.

The area around Jalan Wong Ah Fook has changed dramatically since the 1800s when JB was a free port with a busy harbor for the export of timber and other products extracted from Johor’s forests as well as plantation crops like pepper and gambier, coffee, tea, areca nuts, sago, wood oil, rattan and resins. 

Before the causeway with road and rail links between JB and Singapore was constructed in 1924, Sungai Segget was a major waterway plied by small vessels like sampan and tongkang to ferry goods and people along the river to a site near present day Tropical Inn.

To regulate water levels at high tide and to control traffic, a sea-gate or tidal gate was constructed at the river mouth.  This tidal gate has been in use for decades and while upgrading work is in progress to improve its functions, additional pumps and a generator are employed to help pump out excess water into the Johor Straits when necessary.  I’ve also written about how the name Segget came into being and speculated that locals may have corrupted the pronunciation of sea-gate into “segget” instead!

Old photo of the Food Market or Pasar Kia at the corner of
Jalan Ungku Puan and Jalan Wong Ah Fook
Many people may not remember but the area around Jalan Segget was originally canals around a triangular-shaped island, the site of the wet market where traders sold fresh produce and fishermen brought in their daily catch for sale.  The old market was replaced by a new one built with wrought iron in 1894 and later, the canals were reclaimed and built-up as Jalan Segget.

At the corner of Jalan Ungku Puan and Jalan Wong Ah Fook, on a site bordering Sungai Segget, there was a Food Market that the Teochew fondly call, pasar kia or small market, renowned as a food court for a range of popular street food.  The river was then conveniently used for waste disposal where all manner of waste was dumped and when the tide was low, it was an open sewer that emitted a distinctive stinky pong! 

Jalan Wong Ah Fook in 1987, with the main wet market
[Left] the site of present day JB City Square
Sungai Segget was then the bane of our developing town and it was a relief when this Food Market was closed and the pollution to the river ceased.  The river, which runs parallel with Jalan Wong Ah Fook, was later completely covered and landscaped with pedestrian paths until 2014, when work started on the project to reopen the river.

With such a long and eventful history, Sungai Segget certainly deserves to be the crux of the RM240 million upgrading project that includes the construction of the Sungai Segget Water Treatment Plant, flood mitigation and beautification of Jalan Wong Ah Fook.

This project is one of the initiatives of IRDA under the JB Transformation Programme that aims to sustain the city as the capital of Johor by providing economic activities, city living and amenities that are aligned with the vision of MBJB and Iskandar Malaysia.

I simply can’t wait for June 2016 when the project will be completed and the landscape around Jalan Wong Ah Fook will be transformed beyond recognition.  Meanwhile let’s be patient while remaining vigilant as the monsoon season will soon pass and the project, which is on track, will be completed according to schedule.

A version of this was published in the January 2016 issue of The Iskandarian

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