Adapting to climate change


Inundated: Aerial view of a flooded Kota Baru after Sungai Kelantan overflowed in 2014. — File pic

BEING close to the equator, the “perpetual summer” in Malaysia is nothing new. In the past few weeks, however, the tropical heat has been amplified, prompting many Malaysians (who can afford it) to reach for their air-conditioning remote control to cool themselves down. The El Nino cycle, the warm phase of the El Nino-Southern Oscillation, has arrived yet again and is forecast to remain until May.

The hot and dry season of El Nino is not a new phenomenon and we should all be familiar with its effects and the measures we take to adapt, which includes staying indoors and keeping cool, drinking more water and reducing water wastage.

In fact, this reality has been reiterated so many times in the past that we have accepted this rising temperature trend as just a passing annual event. How-ever, this completely dismisses the fact that we are living with an insidiously rising temperature trend that it is intricately linked to climate change.

In September last year, Malaysia submitted its Third National Com­mu­nication and Second Biennale Update Report to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC). This document contains data which showed that Malaysia’s mean temperature has been increasing (by 0.13°C to 0.24°C, every 10 years) between 1969 and 2014.

This critical and long-term warming trend will continue in the foreseeable years to come if the clarion call for the world to limit its temperature increase by 1.5°C above preindustrial levels (ie, 1850–1900) by the Inter­govern­mental Panel on Climate Change Special Report falls on deaf ears.

The 1.5°C temperature change may appear deceivingly negligible, but scientists have repeatedly warned that it is enough to have global-scale implications with far-reaching and long-term impacts on the planet’s climate system. There will be more incidences of intense and extreme weather patterns (ie, droughts, storms surges, typhoons, etc), water stress, food shortages, mass species extinctions, sea-level rises, diseases, and increased temperatures in the years to come.

While the impacts of climate change affect everyone indiscriminately, populations are disproportionately exposed to its risks. The adverse consequences of climate change are felt the most by disadvantaged and vulnerable populations, which include indigenous peoples, communities dependent on agricultural or coastal livelihoods, and those who live in poverty – all of whom have little means to cope with climate change impacts and disasters.

Cities are particularly vulnerable in that they are immobile, which becomes a barrier to climate adaptation. Climate-induced changes pose threats to food distribution, energy provision, water supply, waste removal and information technology, and increases susceptibility to disease outbreaks in urban settings. In the worst-case scenario, there will be social unrest from shortages and price spikes of key commodities, mass emigration, high unemployment and climatic disasters.

It is worth noting that Malaysia is among the countries with the highest urban populations living in low-elevation coastal zones – therefore sea-level rises and erosions here will inevitably cause a huge loss of value in land and infrastructure, economic activities, as well as the need for massive population relocation.

The same goes with extreme precipitation from prolonged rainstorms. We’ve had a taste of this already: Malaysia was overwhelmed by a massive flood in December 2014, when continuous rain caused water levels in rivers to exceed safety levels in Kelantan, Pahang, Perak and Terengganu. An emergency evacuation was urgently required, and about 60,000 people left their homes to seek safe shelter.

The damage from the flood’s aftermath was estimated at a staggering RM1bil; of this, RM100mil was used to repair roads in Kelantan and RM132mil to repair roads in Terengganu. (Estrada, M.A.R., Koutronas, E., Tahir, M., & Mansor, N. (2017). “Hydrological Hazard Assessment: The 2014–15 Malaysia Floods”. International Journal Of Disaster Risk Reduction, 24, 264-270.)

Malaysia, as a party to the Paris Agreement on climate change, has committed to reducing its carbon emission intensity per capita GDP by 45% by 2030 relative to its 2005 levels. However, our actions towards climate adaptation are sorely underwhelming. There are various guidelines, roadmaps and policies for carbon emission reductions and in “decarbonizing” the economy but deliberations on adaptation strategies are still inadequate.

To date, Malaysia has yet to produce its National Adaptation Plan which several developing countries in the FCCC have embarked on, and for which the FCCC’s Green Climate Fund offers resources.

The objective of the Adaptation Plan is to reduce the country’s vulnerability to the impacts of climate change by building adaptive capacity and resilience. The Plan also facilitates the coherent and comprehensive integration of climate change adaptation into relevant new and existing policies, programmes and activities, especially development planning processes and strategies, within all relevant sectors and at different levels as appropriate.

At present, the adaptation efforts in Malaysia appear inadequate, mainly because the elements of climate adaptation are embedded sporadically across various plans that are mostly silo in nature and, therefore, fragmented. In Malaysia’s Third National Communication, various climate change vulnerabilities and their adaptation measures have been identified according to sectors and, to some extent, implemented at different scales despite not being captured holistically in the form of a National Adaptation Plan.

To name a few, Integrated Flood Management aims to make efficient use of flood plains to minimise loss of property and life with, among others, flood mitigation projects. There is also Integrated River Basin Management and Flood Hazard and Flood Risk Mapping to aid systematic planning and development to reduce the risk of floods; and the Urban Stormwater Management Manual which provides design criteria for urban stormwater management. The National Coastal Erosion Study and Integrated Shoreline Management Plan studies contain adaptation measures for critical erosion coastal areas around the country.

But to articulate these plans in a larger strategy, one has to go through all these documents and find areas for resources and institutional integration to allow for a more streamlined and efficient implementation.

Perhaps the document that comes close to integrating climate adaptation plan is the country’s Third National Physical Plan, where three broad strategies towards sustainability and climate change resilience are presented. They are: 1. Sustainable management of natural, food and heritage resources; 2. Holistic land-use planning; and 3. Low carbon cities and sustainable infrastructure.

Whether these strategies are faithfully reflected in subsequent State Structure Plans and Local Plans remains arguably missing, inadequate or inconsistent, and they are faced with major implementation barriers despite having all these plans spelt out.

Examples include deforestation, which is still widespread; clearing of hill-land; destruction of important coastal ecosystems, such as mangrove forests which are nursery grounds for fisheries and buffer zones against storm surges; promotion of intensive transportation networks that focus heavily on private vehicles instead of public transportation; large-scale land reclamation that destroy fishing grounds; and no real commitment to include green infrastructure in urban planning.

These are just some of the problems stopping Malaysia from being truly prepared for climate change impacts.

While this is not to dismiss the existing good work that is being carried out, such as Kedah’s project to protect the central forest spine, we must confront the truth that Malaysia is just not doing enough domestically on climate actions.

The Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change Ministry has been given the huge task of coordinating our climate actions. It is encouraging that the Minister Yeo Bee Yin has acknowledged at the climate talks in Poland last year that Malaysia is “ready to do more”, indicating the nation’s ability to take aggressive climate change action.

We must therefore quicken our pace in coming up with the proposed National Climate Change Act, speed up the setting up of the long overdue Climate Change Centre, and put in place our National Adaptation Plan. These are just some measures that are essential if we are to get our act together.

Malaysia must do better in ensuring that our planning and economic decisions are viewed through a climate-change lens, because business-as-usual decisions will not protect us from climate change impacts. The future will be harsh if we do not place climate change reality and its impacts at the core in shaping the country for our children. We have to act now, before it is too late.

S.M. MOHAMED IDRIS

President

Consumers Association of Penang

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