Preparing for floods is more than just putting the TV up on a high shelf. It’s also about learning to be resilient enough to get back to normal as soon as possible after an emergency.
AZMI Seman’s T-shirt says it all: “Kalau Bukan Kita, Siapa Lagi?”, which translates as “If Not Us, Then Who?”
The 49-year-old from Kampong Laloh in Kuala Krai, Kelantan, knows what it is like for villagers to have to rely on each other.
Last December, flood water rose to dizzying heights in Kampong Laloh, sweeping away houses, vehicles and motorbikes, and it was tough getting any help in.
Azmi was one of the “heroes” in his village who went around helping people to safety.
He says up till last year, villagers used to think of floods as something normal, a pesta air (water festival) of sorts even.
But after last year’s experience, when water rose to historic levels, they are a lot more wary.
It has been almost a year but it is still fresh in the minds of Azmi and the other villagers how dire the situation became and how desperate the 2,000 villagers were, huddled together on the top floor of the village school, hungry and afraid, as the water continued to rise around the building.
“We were unprepared because we have never had this type of flooding here before,” says Azmi, during a break at the Mercy Malaysia-organised Disaster Risk Reduction workshop in his kampung that aims to build resilience and community preparedness.
The workshop is very practical and encourages the villagers themselves to brainstorm and come up with ideas and solutions.
The first session had villagers sharing stories of their flood experience and those they have heard from their parents, grandparents, and others about the four major floods – in the years 1926, 1967, 2004 and 2014 – in Kelantan.
In another session, villagers divided themselves up into teams, with each team having to list down in different categories all the people and organisations that helped them “before, during, and after” the floods.
“These details, including the contact numbers, will be compiled and given to the villagers so that they know exactly where and whom to reach out to for help should there be another emergency.
“Having such information in their hands is empowering,” says Mercy Malaysia’s (non-medical) vice-president Nor Azam Abu Samah, who is in Kampong Laloh for the workshop.
As part of their training exercise, villagers set out in teams on a recce to identify and pick a number of high ground areas in their village that could be potential evacuation sites if it floods again, and where they could go should the water rise even higher this time than last year.
One of the areas they picked was the village cemetery!
At each of these areas, they identified strengths and weaknesses.
They looked at weaknesses such as having no access road in, the land belonging to someone else or that the land is planted with rubber trees; the villagers then tried to figure out solutions themselves, be it to meet with the land owner to get permission to use the land during an emergency or to think of making a dirt road or track to access the currently inaccessible area.
They scouted areas that could be cleared for a helipad so that helicopters could bring in much needed supplies if the situation continued longer than expected.
Nor Azam says this form of experiential learning, where villagers assess for themselves the strengths and vulnerabilities of their village, gets the villagers directly involved in planning and preparing for themselves.
“It is not rocket science. But if it is not done like this, they probably will not get to feel it. This way, they will be more confident because they can see it for themselves. It is not just in theory.
“After all, the villagers are the ones who are most familiar with their area, and they know where the biggest risks are and where the safest places are,” he says.
The villagers are also given a simulation exercise in which an announcement from the meteorological department says there will be heavy rains in 23 days, giving the villagers 15 minutes to decide how to prepare for what is to come. But before their 15 minutes is up, the scenario changes drastically, and they are told it is already raining and they have to evacuate.
So there and then, they have to think on their feet and plan.
Then each of the teams presents its plans, following which, the villagers have to decide on priorities, what they think should be step one, two, three and so on, for their preparations.
At the end of it, their actions are evaluated and they’re told how they can improve.
The training also makes them very aware of the importance of having a “grab bag” ready so that when they evacuate, they will have basic supplies with them, such as easy-to-eat food, water, and essentials that would keep them going for a few days if they are stranded without supplies.
Nor Azam also says villagers should protect important documents in a plastic bag so that they aren’t damaged by the water when they take them along when they evacuate.
And he recommends that people in flood-prone areas should keep a supply of plastic bags on hand.
“They can put clothes in plastic bags and put them in their cupboards if they have to evacuate, so that when they come home after the floods, it is very possible that the clothes will still be dry and clean.”
In Kampong Tualang, which Mercy Malaysia also helped train, he says villagers have already put their TV sets up at an elevated level in their homes.
“They said it’s okay not to watch TV for the next month or two as long as they won’t have to buy a new TV again after the floods,” he says.
Training local heroes
During the training, villagers will also set up their own Flood Response Committee. They will pick a chairman, deputy and committee members, and then decide who heads the logistics planning, who is in charge of shelter, who takes charge of preparing food for the evacuees, etc.
Nor Azam says shortly after completing the training, Mercy Malaysia will meet with the Flood Response Committee to find out what the village needs.
“We have allocated RM50,000 for them to decide what they need to buy. We have already done this training in three other villages in Kelantan – and villagers mostly ask for boats!
“We let them do the planning themselves because it helps the community bond and take charge. Assuming a leadership role also helps build resilience in the village.
“Previously it was up to individuals to decide what to do and where to go if it floods. Some would go to a relative’s house or a friend’s, etc, but now they will have a community response.
“People will care and look out for each other. They know those staying near the river are most vulnerable when it floods, so they will get them out first,” he says.
Nor Azam says there were actually many kampung heroes during the last flood. But many of these stories did not get told because the flood was so extensive and overwhelming.
“There were 300,000 evacuees but official reports show there were only four deaths. Compare this with the tsunami (of 2004) where over 146,000 died. How come the number of deaths from last year’s flood is so low? It is because the ones who were the first respondents and who saved lives were the kampung folks themselves. They were the heroes,” he says.
Mercy Malaysia gives reflective vests, hygiene kits and 10 walkie-talkies to every village they train so that the community is able to better respond and manage the situation during natural disasters and emergencies like floods.
Kampong Laloh, though, has an extra edge.
Last month, nine of their village heroes were taken to Tanjung Malim, Perak, by Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris where they were trained at the rapids in Sungai Sungkai how to handle a boat in fast-moving water, how to free themselves if they get sucked into a whirlpool, and how to lift people into the boat.
Azmi was one of the villagers who went for the training, and he says that when the group came back, its members trained others in the village. Now, they have set up their own village rescue team of 30 people.
As for Mercy Malaysia, they have ambitious plans.
Nor Azam says their target for next year is to hold disaster risk reduction training sessions in 60 kampungs in six different states: Johor, Kuala Lumpur, Perak, Sabah, Sarawak and Selangor.
Not only that, the organisation also goes into schools and work with students to teach them to take responsibility for their own safety and the safety of others.
Nor Azam says Mercy Malaysia is also training hospitals to be resilient and hopes to train at least three hospitals in each state.
The private sector too plays a big role in helping victims, he says, but “the thing is they don’t get much coverage compared to politicians who come bringing the press and cameramen”.
For him, for risk reduction to be sustainable, every segment of society needs to be involved, from government agencies, the private sector and institutions of higher learning to civil society, community-based organisations, and the general public.
The United Nation’s Office for Disaster Risk Reduction is running a campaign for resilient cities where whatever shock or stresses come up – be they natural disasters, disease outbreaks or terrorists attack – the city and its systems, businesses, institutions and community are able to survive, adapt quickly and bounce back.
Nor Azam hopes that cities in Malaysia will ready themselves that way and join the club of resilient cities.
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