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So Aunty, So What?

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Between life and death

BY now, everyone knows how four people lived to tell their tale after their boat capsized in the South China Sea.

The survival story of resort owner Tommy Lam, his worker Armella Ali Hassan and Spaniards David Hernandez Gasulla and Martha Miguel is the stuff of Hollywood. Not surprisingly, they made international headlines.

They were reported missing on May 2 while on a two-hour boat ride from Pulau Balambangan to Simpang Mengayau in Sabah’s northern Kudat district.

After several days of searching, most assumed they had perished. But they managed to keep themselves alive with distilled water from the sea, flying fish and clams from the boat’s underside and passing flotsam.

Finally, they were saved by a passing Vietnamese fishing boat which had trespassed into Malay­sian waters, thanks to a compassionate captain who chose not to ignore them, unlike other earlier passing vessels.

But to me, the most intriguing fact was how they distilled water, a technique Miguel remembered from an unnamed movie.

She was quoted as saying they used a cellphone screen and a plastic bag to catch the evaporating water.

“Doing it every 15 minutes, we were each able to have a drink once an hour,” she said.

I was so intrigued by this survival technique, I just had to Google to find out how it was done. And my goodness, it is not easy at all.

According to various websites, it is a very slow and tedious process. Presumably Miguel and Co used the cellphone screen to direct sunlight to heat up the seawater, forcing it to condense, which they somehow collected in the plastic bag.

Ironically, it was garbage in the sea like this that saved their lives, including the flotsam that drifted past them and provided them with clams stuck to it.

The Spanish couple told interviewers that it was their knowledge of survival skills that made all the difference between life and death.

As a city person, I have always lived with all the mods and cons within easy reach and life-saving services just a phone call away.

I don’t do stuff like hiking in the hills, camping in the jungle or riding in a small boat in open water, so I never bothered to learn sur­vival skills. But unexpected calamities can happen to anyone.

After all, life is unpredictable. Just ask the Syrians who lived in peace until a civil war erupted around them or the Canadians in Alberta who had to flee their homes when unprecedented wildfires burned through a wide swath of their state.

Our homes could also be engulfed by a tsunami or wrecked by an earthquake. Too far-fetched? Not any more, not after the earthquake in Sabah.

Indeed, as the first anniversary of the Sabah earthquake approaches, we should take stock of our readiness to deal with disasters, natural and man-made.

I’ve always thought Malaysia on both sides of the South China Sea was earthquake-free because we were out of the Pacific Ring of Fire, which I associated with active volcanoes.

But according to National Geographic, this 40,000km ring includes “not only volcanoes, but ocean trenches, mountain trenches, hydrothermal vents and sites of earthquake activity”.

And part of the ring goes under peninsular Malaysia and another cuts across Sabah.

And that’s why we experienced the June 5, 2015, earthquake in Ranau, Sabah, that killed 18 people.

It was caused by the presence of active fault lines, that is compression forces from the interaction of three main tectonic plates, ex­­plained geologist Dr Felix Tongkul in an article he wrote for The Star.

If it happened once, it can happen again. Who knows, the plates could be compressing under the peninsula as well.

Yet, we lucky, sheltered Malay­sians haven’t the foggiest when it comes to disaster prevention and response.

I am perhaps slightly less foggy because I was privileged to visit Rinkai Park, one of three disaster management base facilities in Tokyo, Japan, an experience I shared in my column on May 6 last year, a month before the Ranau earthquake.

There I learned how the Japanese are taught to set up emergency shelters, toilets and DIY first aid with everyday materials like cardboard boxes, plastic bags and bottles.

After Ranau, the importance of being disaster savvy couldn’t be clearer.

Experts say in Sabah, Kota Kinabalu is the highest risk city while in the peninsula, Putrajaya, Kuala Lumpur and Penang top the list and there should be a mandatory code for buildings to be seismic resistant. Kuala Lumpur City Hall seemed keen to implement one, but it’s gone all quiet again.

While the onus is on the Go­­vernment to formulate a national disaster management plan covering all aspects, from prevention, preparedness and response to reco­very, the people should also do their part.

If you can’t swim, now would be a good time to take lessons and learn other survival skills like climbing trees, making fire without a lighter or matches, knowing what bugs and strange plants are edible and, of course, distilling water with solar heat.

Whether it is for a large-scale disaster or a personal misfortune like getting lost in the jungle or sea, it is such knowledge that might just save your life and others.

If all this is just too much, then Aunty suggests getting a waterproof cellphone (Samsung Galaxy S7, yay!) to call for help and download survival apps and a solar phone charger to keep connected till help arrives. Feedback: aunty@thestar.com.my.

Tags / Keywords: Politics , survival skills , disaster , earthquake , Sabah

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