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Of floods and human intervention

Figure 1: Intellicast wind flow pattern over Southeast Asia for 4 November 2017

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We need to urgently look into the root causes that have brought about environmental destruction and flash floods and come up with long-term solutions, says Mustafa  K Anuar.

In the wake of the floods that devastated Penang (and also southern Kedah), assistance and other forms of aid have inundated these states through the collective effort of well-meaning Malaysians and civil society to help flood victims to pick up the pieces.

The well-placed concern and warmth of these Malaysians, apart from the disaster management initiatives from the federal and the state governments concerned, point to the gravity of the issue at hand: lost lives, the destruction of homes and property and consequent human displacement, environmental devastation such as landslides, power disruption, impacted businesses, affected livelihoods, and overall human insecurity.

Last Saturday’s 15-hour downpour that battered Penang was certainly unprecedented and, therefore, the state government,­ as well as most of the ordinary people, was “caught by surprise” by such a colossal calamity.

Thus, to avoid such surprises in the future, it is crucial that we recognise the urgency of having a more integrated and coordinated disaster preparedness and management strategy at the federal and state levels, particularly on the part of the National Disaster Management Agency (Nadma) that was set up in 2015.

This is because floods that wreak havoc had also visited not only Penang, but also elsewhere in the country such as Kedah, Kuala Lumpur, Selangor and Johor in recent times. As it is, Penang had experienced a minimum of 20 flash floods each year since 2013 – 22 in 2013, 2014 (20), 2015 (26), 2016 (30) and as at 15 October (21).

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In other words, such damaging incidents are no longer remote, especially given the overarching phenomenon of climate change. Under such circumstances, there may be more heavy rains and flash floods in the future that could be even more destructive.

For one thing, the country’s Meteorological Department should see to it that it provides data that could enable evacuations to take place a week before heavy downpours or storms happen, as pointed out by Deputy Prime Minister Zahid Hamidi recently in Penang.

In this regard, Zahid’s expressed intention to make the Kemaman Floods Management Plan as a model for disaster management efforts is noteworthy; a plan that obviously requires the cooperation and commitment of all parties, irrespective of political ideologies, faith and party affiliations.

This model consists of a three-stage plan:

  • pre-flood awareness programmes to be conducted by the National Security Council, which covers basic information on how to cope with floods, flood kits for victims, and information on relief centres;
  • during the floods, meetings to coordinate the various operations will be held daily, and supplies of food, drinks and other basic necessities are to be dispatched to each flood relief centre; and
  • a post-flood plan to assess damage to public property, such as bridges, buildings and roads, and private property, while the district offices are tasked with managing the contributions and donated items. One week after the last relief centre is closed, a post-mortem on the flood management operations will be carried out and proposals presented for further improvement.

The above strategies are basic, yet their full and well-coordinated implementation is critical to at least ensure the rapid mobilisation of resources and the safety and survival of disaster victims.

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While these short- and medium-term strategies are vital in managing natural disasters when they happen, there is also an urgent need to look into the root causes that have brought about environmental destruction and flash floods, and subsequently offer long-term solutions.

To be sure, this has got to do with the way humans generally treat, or rather mistreat, Mother Nature.

In this matter, the voices of concerned Malaysians and civil society groups – all of which are society’s stakeholders – should be given a fair hearing, especially in an era where governments supposedly no longer know best. There are, among these groups, people who have the expertise to analyse and offer practical solutions to the problems that we face.

Additionally, in a democracy like ours, freedom of information and expression is also crucial so that the citizenry are well informed about their environment, and also to hold those who destroy the environment accountable for their actions.

Many of these civil society groups have all along expressed their concerns over the way hillsides are recklessly cut, greenery that has been replaced by a concrete jungle, andcatchment areas and forests that have been aggressively intruded on by logging.

It also needs to be emphasised here that hill-side development and logging require keen monitoring, as they could lead to water run-off problems and landslides. Which explains why these groups have called for a moratorium on development, especially on hill sides or hill land. The call by the federal government for state governments to review approved development projects is a step in the right direction.

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The Institute of Engineers Malaysia, for example, has proposed that comprehensive mitigation measures be implemented to prevent floods of a similar scale from happening again. It also called for more funds to be allocated to the Drainage and Irrigation Department, which has implemented some flood mitigation measures in the states concerned.

On the part of ordinary Malaysians, we also have a responsibility to keeping the environment clean by not, for instance, throwing plastic and other non-biodegradable items into drains and rivers or by investing in a house on a hill side.

At the end of the day, you can’t, and shouldn’t, mess around with Mother Nature.

Source: The Malaysian Insight

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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Dr Mustafa K Anuar, a longtime executive committee member and former honorary secretary of Aliran, is, co-editor of our newsletter. He obtained his PhD from City, University of London and is particularly interested in press freedom and freedom of expression issues. These days, he is a a senior journalist with an online media portal
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