Focus on disaster early warning systems


IN 2014, Malaysia was battered by heavy rain and rivers swelled dangerously, creating immense floods and one of the worst disasters in recent years. Approximately 500,000 to one million people, especially those living in Kelantan, Pahang and Terengganu were affected.

This year saw a grim repeat of that catastrophe when persistent torrential downpours caused waters to rise in eight states and took nearly 50 lives, also causing injuries and damaging property to the tune of millions if not billions.

When Environment and Water Minister Datuk Seri Tuan Ibrahim Tuan Man claimed that the public did not take weather forecasts seriously following the recent floods, Malaysians hit back, arguing that the government’s lack of preparation and action in the days leading up to the floods were the problem, and chastised the minister for shifting blame onto the people. More-over, many members of the public said they were not given due warning about the gravity of the floods.

According to the United States’ Center for Excellence in Disaster Management and Humanitarian Assistance, Malaysia has experienced 51 natural disasters between 1998 and 2018. In that time period, 281 people died, over three million people were affected, and nearly RM8bil in damages was caused.

Although Malaysia has an early warning system for earthquakes, floods, and tsunamis, including short message service (SMS) capabilities and other technologies to notify the public of risks, the communication of alerts and how to respond often falls short, which is what happened during the recent floods in Kuala Lumpur and Selangor when many were caught unaware and unprepared.

So how can we improve our disaster early warning systems so that we can be better prepared for future occurrences?

Climate impact

This is particularly crucial with climate change which brings about environmental modification that leads to many environmental impacts. This means that climate change can cause a chain disaster event, says Universiti Sains Malaysia Disaster management specialist Dr Khairilmizal Samsudin.

“During the dry season, we are looking at droughts and forest fires which indirectly cause water pollution as well. Even though Malaysia is not majorly affected, over the years bushfire cases have increased. Unfortunately, during the rainy or monsoon season, Malaysia is looking at disasters with more significant impacts, such as flooding and coastal flooding,” Khairilmizal explains.

And with minimal drainage planning, he says that flash floods like what we are seeing in urban areas right now can also happen.

“To make things worse, without proper control, floods will lead to water-borne diseases, vector-borne diseases and rodent transmitted diseases,” he warns.

Emergency management

Good emergency management involves five elements – effective command structures, comprehensive information management, situational awareness, capable communication, and adequate resource and logistics, says Khairilmizal.

The recent Selangor floods exposed much-needed effort in all five areas, he says, but comprehensive information management may help to minimise and reduce damage from floods.

“The Malaysian Meteorological Department (MetMalaysia) provides the science of weather, calculating and predicting weather conditions and severity of expected weather conditions. We may not be able to prevent natural hazards like heavy rain, earthquakes, monsoons and so on, but they can be predicted to a certain level of accuracy based on current technology,” says Khairilmizal.

The information from Met-Malaysia needs to be able to be read and precisely analysed by responding agencies, local authorities, the private sector and even individuals in taking initial actions prior to the impact of the disaster. By doing so, minimising and reducing the impact of the disaster can be achieved, he notes.

The public can also check the official Drainage and Irrigation Department’s Infobanjir website at publicinfobanjir.water.gov.my for the latest information on areas affected by floods.

It was reported that on Friday, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob instructed the National Flood Forecasting and Warning Centre (PRABN) to improve the communication system for flood warnings to ensure information is channelled more efficiently and comprehensively.

According to Environment and Water Ministry secretary-general Datuk Seri Dr Zaini Ujang, the Prime Minister stressed that the warning system should not be restricted to just SMS texts but also include videos and real-time information so that Malaysians could be more aware of real flood situations.

The ministry will work with the Communications and Multimedia Ministry to achieve this.

Zaini adds that the ministry will also roll out the PRABN early warning system nationwide this year.

Currently used in the river basins of Kelantan, Pahang and Tereng-ganu, and in an experimental phase in the northern states of the peninsula, the system gives a warning by sounding a siren as early as two days before flooding occurs. It can also forecast floods seven days before they are predicted to occur.

Thus far, this system has a 95% accuracy rate, says Zaini.

Dr Khairilmizal: Our current early warning system is not comprehensive enough, making it ineffective.Dr Khairilmizal: Our current early warning system is not comprehensive enough, making it ineffective.

Effective warning systems

For early warning systems to be truly effective, four elements are needed, says Khairilmizal. This includes risk knowledge, which refers to awareness of an area’s exposure to natural hazards; monitoring and warning services; information dissemination and communication; and a good response capability.

“At the moment, we only minimally cover monitoring and warning services. My view is our current ‘early warning system’ is not comprehensive, making it ineffective.

“In severe weather situations, MetMalaysia does a great job in issuing severe weather warnings which act as an early warning. Further improvement can be made through detailing out the severity of it and providing more technical data and information for easier analysis and understanding,” says Khairilmizal.

Although MetMalaysia issued warnings, unfortunately alarms stopped at the “warning phase” only. There is room for improvement in terms of Malaysia’s disaster communication, says Khairilmizal.

“Lead responding agencies, local, and state authorities, which are the experts in the local area, need to be able to analyse and interpret the given information so that they can start immediately acting on issued warnings. Government agencies also need to empower the community so that they can understand and act accordingly on any early warnings issued. This situation is akin to hearing a fire alarm but not knowing what to do,” he says.

In terms of “tactical” capabilities to handle disasters, lead responding agencies in Malaysia are one of the best and acknowledged by experts internationally. However, our challenges are more towards “managing the disaster” and strategic disaster management, says Khairilmizal.

He explains that disaster management in Malaysia is based on the Malaysia National Security Council Directive No.20 (MNSC 20) which was introduced in 1997 and last reviewed in 2012 after significant international movements around disaster management and disaster risk reduction.

“Unfortunately, the disaster management in Malaysia is lacking in terms of governance and implementation of the MNSC 20. The MNSC20 is just a policy and not supported by any clear legislation or standards or SOP on managing the disaster,” he says.

Khairilmizal explains that in disaster situations, responding agencies are capable of “tactical” work, but challenges arise when coordinating a multiagency response or a “unified command”.

“This policy is activated only when the emergencies reach the district level, and continue on to state and federal levels. For the floods in Selangor, although disaster management initiatives were activated at the federal level due to its magnitude and impact, the issue is that the community was not prepared.”

Empowering communities

Even if Malaysia were to have the most advanced disaster early warning system, this would not amount to much if we are unable to communicate the warning in a way that people understand and take seriously, or if people are not informed about what steps to take should a disaster occur.

Therefore the warnings provided must be delivered in a simple, clear and understandable manner through all channels – including private and public media – with widespread education on disaster response. At the moment, people are advised to monitor the Drainage and Irrigation Department website at publicinfobanjir.water.gov.my for flood alerts. However, having a one-stop comprehensive disaster early warning and response website for the public like the Health Ministry’s CovidNow portal, which is used to monitor Covid-19 cases and vaccinations, is also necessary.

Ultimately, the people need to know what to do when a disaster warning is issued.

“MetMalaysia issued multiple warnings, but does the community know what to do? If the community only waits for responding agencies’ action, it may be too late already,” Khairilmizal points out.

Developed countries like Japan, the United States and the United Kingdom minimise impacts and losses during a disaster by empowering their community, educating them from kindergarten age.

When a community is prepared and knows the basic response, the efforts by responding agencies will be much faster, says Khairilmizal, pointing to the policies instituted after the 2004 tsunami in Aceh, Indonesia, as an example.

“Now, the moment the community hears a tsunami alarm, everyone will be at the designated tsunami shelter within one to two hours without much intervention needed by responding agencies. In this case, responding agencies can concentrate their effort on people who are really in need of assistance.”

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