Human Writes: Climate-fuelled disasters on the rise

  • Living
  • Sunday, 08 Dec 2019

Harun Sani Fitri Abdul Rahim, 23, (left) with friend Wan Zaki Wan Omar, 44, braving floodwaters to get supplies to the temporary evacuation centre in Kampung Nyatoh, leaving behind their flooded homes in Setiu, Terengganu, on Dec 1. Photo: Bernama

In the first week of December 2019, flooding has caused massive chaos and upheaval on the East Coast of Peninsular Malaysia. Thousands have been evacuated – more than 15,000 people were in relief centres in Kelantan and Terengganu on Dec 3. At press time on Dec 6, two people had died.

Images from the worst areas – such as Setiu in Terengganu – are shocking. In one photo from Kampung Bukit Nyior, Setiu, only the roof of an inundated house and the upper parts of trees were visible; everything else was submerged in a muddy sea of teh tarik-coloured water.

One woman, Mariam Sulong, from Kampung Nyatoh, Setiu, bemoaned having to be evacuated, saying in a news report that she had spent RM30,000 to raise her house 2m higher to protect against floods, as had other villagers, following floods in 2013. Yet it was to no avail.

Heavy rain is a habitual affair in the East Coast during monsoon time. Indeed, flood protection is in-built in the design of the traditional Malay house on stilts.

But this year’s downpours are more than normal. And what is chilling – they may be part of a pattern of more frequent extreme weather events, which scientists link to global warming.

An extreme weather event that previously would occur once a decade might now occur every few years. The country’s worst floods have occurred in recent years. There were bad floods in 2003, 2006 and 2007. In 2008, 100,000 people were evacuated from their homes.

In 2014, five northern states on the peninsula suffered extremely high levels of rainfall (more than six times above average). The Kelantan river reached a record high, surpassing the previous highest level in 1967. About 200,000 people had to be evacuated from their homes. Some were stranded in remote areas without food and clean water; 21 people died. An estimated half a million people were affected.

Then in November 2017, Penang was hit with torrential rains and strong winds. Thousands had to be evacuated, seven people were killed, homes were destroyed and hundreds of trees were uprooted. The floods were the worst ever seen, rising to 4m in some areas. At one point, half the island was underwater.

We need to connect the dots, but first, we need more data and studies on climatic patterns.

Deforestation in some areas has also led to flooding, because trees hold more water than farms or grass while logging leads to soil erosion and accelerated water runoff.

But as a country with low-lying urban areas along lengthy coastlines, we are inherently vulnerable. George Town faces the sea and is low-lying, as is Melaka. Penang suffered 100 flash floods between 2013 and 2017, underscoring the need for flood mitigation.

About 9% of Malaysia’s land area is flood prone and nearly five million people live in these risk areas, according to the Department of Irrigation and Drainage.

We don’t think of Malaysia as disaster prone, as, fortunately, she lies outside of the Pacific Ring of Fire (where earthquakes and volcanic eruptions occur often) and off the paths of major typhoon. But we’ve weathered many disasters of late.

Floods affected more people here than in any other Asean country between July 2012 and this January, the Center for Excellence in Disaster Management and Humanitarian Assistance noted in a report this year. In the last two decades, natural disasters affected three million Malaysians, causing RM8bil in damages.

Globally, over the last decade, climate-fuelled disasters have forced 20 million people a year from their homes, of whom 80% live in Asia, a new study by the charity Oxfam concluded.

The study, titled “Forced from Home”, was released on Dec 2 ahead of UN climate negotiations in Madrid (Dec 2-13). The report noted that today, people are three times more likely to be displaced by cyclones, floods and wildfires than by conflict.

Some countries are stepping up their response – the British Environment Agency recently announced it would spend £1bil (RM5.4bil) a year on flood management, in anticipation of intense bursts of rain and coastal erosion.

For others, it might be too late. In Venice, a planned flood barrier system remains unfinished, drowned in a corruption scandal and other controversies. Last month, the city was hit by an extreme high tide, which flooded 85% of it, leaving some areas under almost 2m of water.

Boats were pushed ashore, while chairs floated outside cafes. There are worries that St Mark’s Basilica, one of the world’s finest examples of Byzantine architecture, suffered structural damage.

Floods have always plagued Venice. But the acqua alta (high water), as locals call it, has never been so bad, so often. Ironically, just as the regional council rejected a climate change mitigation plan last month, its offices on the city’s Grand Canal were flooded.

Extreme weather events are no longer extraordinary now. We need to act before it’s too late.
Human Writes columnist Mangai Balasegaram writes mostly on health but also delves into anything on being human. She has worked with international public health bodies and has a Masters in public health. Write to her at The views expressed here are entirely the writer's own.
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