Rising waters bring many black swans

  • Living
  • Sunday, 02 Jan 2022

File photo from Dec 22, 2021, of the floods in Taman Sri Muda, Shah Alam, one of the hardest hit areas in Selangor which also saw tens of fatalities. We can expect more such extreme weather events as the climate crisis worsens and the planet heats up. — AZHAR MAHFOF/The Star

I’ve just visited an aunt whose house was very slightly flooded during the December 2021 floods in Malaysia. It was serious enough to warrant a cleanup, but by and large the valuables were all safe (including television sets). But a conversation with my aunt later brought up a topic: Was the house insured?

Specifically, did she have flood insurance? Sure, after what happened in December, the premiums for such insurance will go through the roof. But if you already have it, then at least you can claim it. Basically, I’ve always seen insurance as a bet where you collect if something goes wrong.

Or perhaps the surer bet would be to wait for the government to help you. The Malaysian government announced that RM100mil has been allocated for post-flood repairs for homes and infrastructure nationwide. It’s not clear how much of this help is because the government feels that it’s their duty to help, and how much of it is because they have to be seen giving help after all the criticism directed at how badly they handled the floods.

What more could they have done, though? According to the Malaysian Environment and Water Ministry, there was a month’s worth of rain in one day, and this is something that only occurs once every 100 years. To be fair, how prepared can you be for something that only happens once a century?

What comes to mind is the phrase “black swan event”. It’s generally defined as one that is very rare but also has great impact. It was discussed in depth in a 2007 book, The Black Swan, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

A lot of people use “black swan” as shorthand for “really unexpected big event”. However, they are missing out on one important element stated in Taleb’s book: that these improbable events are actually predictable. Why we miss them, and how to anticipate them is the key. The question of course is, was Malaysia adequately prepared for the floods and will we be in the future?

The truth is, we have already had a fair amount of practice at it. A 2012 report by the Irrigation and Drainage Department stated that 33,928sq km of Malaysia is prone to flooding (just over 10% of the country). That area affects 5.67 million people, and the floods cause an annual loss of more than RM1bil.

Those estimates assume “normal” flooding situations. Floods in Johor in 2006 caused RM1.5bil in damage. More recently, floods in December 2014 affecting Kelantan, Pahang and Terengganu caused more than RM2.85bil in losses. And that is before including related economic losses due to businesses shutting down and unable to function.

In 2018 alone, 450 flood events were recorded in Malaysia. So we have some experience in this area. Which perhaps then begs the question, why weren’t we better prepared for the floods in the Klang Valley?

In fact, we were warned. As the Environment and Water Minister pointed out, the Malaysian Meteorological Department (MetMalaysia) issues warnings, but the public does not take them seriously.

For example, MetMalaysia did detect a tropical depression forming in the South China Sea on Dec 12, 2021. Five days later, on Dec 17, a yellow alert “Continuous Rain Warning” was given for Selangor. The next day, at 2pm on Dec 18, MetMalaysia issued a “Dangerous Continuous Heavy Rain Warning” red alert for Selangor and Kuala Lumpur. Unfortunately, by then parts of the Federal Highway and the NKVE (New Klang Valley Expressway) had already been closed to traffic due to flooding.

So even though we do have experience with managing floods, and MetMalaysia did forecast heavy rains, I suppose the level of rainfall was so high as to be unprecedented. After all, it was a once-in-100-years event.

But there is a difference between the 100 years up to now and the 100 years yet to come. Universiti Putra Malaysia Environment lecturer Haliza Abdul Rahman said in an interview with Channel News Asia: “The flood has been termed a once in a 100 years event. But perhaps more such incidents will be recurring over the coming years.”

The fact is that there have been heavy rainfalls in many parts of the world this year, and climate change is an issue that has very much been on the agenda for the last decade at least, if not more. We are looking at a 1.5°C increase in temperature globally over the next 20 years, and sea levels will continue to rise. Warmer temperatures mean higher evaporation rates and, hence, heavier rainfall, to put it simply.

So what seems like a one-off event may very well turn out to be the new norm.

In fact, some very clever people are already working on ways to mitigate risks. In the short-term, the early warning system needs to be improved along with how the warnings are communicated to people. We already have the tools and a lot of the ability to make predictions, there needs to be a warning and evacuation plan to go with that.

In the mid to long-term, we have to take climate change more seriously. It affects food security, migration and fresh water supply, among others. At least Malaysia is asking for US$3mil (RM12.5mil) from the United Nations Green Climate Fund to develop a national plan to adapt to climate change – although that seems small change compared with RM100mil in aid for these latest floods, or a billion-plus ringgit worth of losses each year.

Given all this, what can we the rakyat do? A study conducted by insurer Zurich Malaysia points out that nearly 74% of homeowners in Malaysia have no flood insurance. Part of the issue, it seems, is trying to determine an affordable premium, and the truth is that those least able to afford it will probably be the ones who lose the most when the waters rise.

It seems somewhat depressing to me that not only must the government manage the immediate emergency – I think quite reasonably so – but it must also take up the role of insurance agent and compensate families who otherwise can’t invest in insurance on their own. And that requires a fair amount of forecasting and judgement-making.

But if you keep seeing more and more black swans swim past you as time goes on, it’s no longer a question of buying insurance. It’s betting on a sure thing.

In his fortnightly column, Contradictheory, mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi explores the theory that logic is the antithesis of emotion but people need both to make sense of life’s vagaries and contradictions. Write to Dzof at lifestyle@thestar.com.my. The views expressed here are entirely the writer's own.

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