We can’t just blame the rain for Malaysia's disastrous floods in December


This debris that was cleared out of the water had been swept down the hills by rain and lodged in Sungai Telemong, Pahang, blocking the river and causing severe flooding in nearby Orang Asli villages. Can we still blame the rain? — Sunway Centre for Planetary Health

I am sure that many of you, like me, are still reeling from the emotional and, for many, physical impact of the recent floods. While our hearts go out to those who have been affected, our heads need to acknow-ledge that nature is angry at what we have done to our country and planet, and is reacting accordingly.

What we are observing and experiencing is a coalition of crises, where climate and health are colliding with deadly effect. The Omicron variant of Covid-19 has arrived, causing new misery – now combined with floods and population displacement, creating a new set of health and welfare challenges.

This coalition of crises is a manifestation of the poor state of the planet and radically enhances our exposure to health and other disaster threats. In Malaysia it has been exacerbated by several factors, including widespread perceptions of poor governance and weak leadership. The standing instructions (Directive 20) on disaster management have not been updated since 2012 despite a major flood incident in 2014.

My sense is that we are beyond debating whether we are in the midst of a planetary health crisis – to argue merits is to waste the limited time we have to do something about it. As we wake up to this new reality, we need to find answers, not pontificate or justify why actions were not taken.

The fact that we have systematised management of the majority of the planet’s resources and how we use them comes with huge but only partially realised responsibilities to manage our impact because of that systematisation. A planetary health approach is the way forward: an integrated way of improving our relationship with planet Earth, focused on achieving the highest attainable standards of health, wellbeing and equity worldwide, all within safe environmental limits.

It requires a stronger focus on changing our political, economic, and social systems so that they protect us and the Earth’s natural systems so BOTH can thrive. We have collectively ignored these fundamentals for far too long now, and it is this that has landed us where we are today – the floods are a manifestation of greater dangers to come, driven by our reckless disregard.

I was taught that disasters are not “natural”. A disastrous event in the middle of nowhere isn’t a disaster; it’s just an event, possibly unknown and unseen. It is the risk to humans that makes an event a disaster. The higher the vulnerability the greater the risk. You can’t change hazard risks; the only changing variable is vulnerability. And so there is a very urgent need to re-examine how we think about disasters, how we incorporate planetary health into our thinking and planning, and making use of best practices from our friends in the region and beyond.

Here are my five proposals to get things moving:

> National disaster management systems must respond to the knowledge and logic that underwrites a planetary health approach. We need the government to work with society on a roadmap that incorporates health, climate change and disaster risk, and which engages everyone – a multi-risk and multi-stakeholder approach. Disasters really are everyone’s business – let’s start there.

> Our development plans must be revisited. We can use the 12th Malaysia Plan as a starting point since it recognises the need to view development planning through a planetary health lens.

> Urban flooding must be tackled in a very different way. The role of NGOs and the private sector must be re-examined, as they have been in Indonesia, Japan, the Philippines and Thailand, and other countries in our region to significant effect. There is little point in preparedness planning, simulations and drills that involve only government agencies and do not engage communities and their stakeholders.

> We need to push for an independent after action review to learn how we can do better. We need help on this, and should reach out, as the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and others have done previously to seek support from experts who can be deployed by Asean and the United Nations to advise us.

> And finally, it’s clear that somewhere we have gone wrong on accountability. The government and the private sector can no longer ignore the growing voices of the rakyat, and particularly young people demanding change.

Lives have been lost. Homes have been destroyed. Cars have been damaged. Livelihoods are at stake. We will only mitigate these horrors if those who are responsible for illegal development, logging, and the granting of planning approvals in areas where residential construction is clearly too great a risk, are held accountable.

But that need for accountability includes every one of us, anyone who disposes of rubbish without thinking where it is going, who still takes single use plastics at the supermarket, and who is not yet connecting the increasingly deadly dots and thinking “what can I do?”


Dr Jemilah Mahmood, a physician and experienced crisis leader, was appointed the executive director of the Sunway Centre for Planetary Health at Sunway University in August 2021. She is the founder of aid organisation Mercy Malaysia and has served in leadership roles internationally with the United Nations and Red Cross for the last decade.

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