Opinion

November 2022 floods: Strategies to prepare, mitigate it

Disaster and responses to it should be introduced as a syllabus in schools even starting at the primary school level to prepare Malaysians to be familiar with these hazards

CONTINUOUS alerts and warnings are being issued by the Malaysian Meteorological Department (MetMalaysia), prime minister (PM) Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob and Selangor Mentri Besar Datuk Amirudin Shari regarding impending storms surges and floods forecasted to start on Oct 3, 2022, till early next year.

It was reported that six states are expected to be lashed with heavy rains — with Kelantan, Terengganu and Pahang predicted to experience heavy monsoon rains from November to December, while Johor, Sabah and Sarawak are expected to face the same from December to January 2023.

Malaysia is expected to experience floods worse than Malaysia’s present record of the worst flood of December 2021 and this in particular is causing grave concern to the rakyat.

Reflecting on the highest death toll recorded and extensive destructions to properties, infrastructures, businesses and the economy in the December 2021 flood, many are wondering how and what is the federal and state governments doing to prepare better for this impending hazard which hopefully will not turn into a terrible catastrophe. Lack of an early warning system (EWS) and delayed and inefficient rescue and response were cited as major causes for these deaths and destruction.

Climate crisis, among others, is creating serious havoc on the global climate, resulting in an increase in the frequency, spatial extent, duration and severity of weather events — including flash floods, storm surges and an increase in sea level rise. 

In the December 2021 flood, the government had responded that it was ill-prepared for the flooding and in particular that which affected Kuala Lumpur (KL) as the federal territory (FT) had not been flooded since 1971.

Reflecting on this response and the anticipated worse flood in November, the residents of KL had requested the government to share its plans for flood preparation and mitigation for the FT.

Receiving inadequate response from the relevant authority, prompted the KL residents to file a lawsuit suit to compel the KL City Hall (DBKL) and the Federal Territories Ministry to provide further information on its flood mitigation measures.

A positive response was received from the FT minister inviting KL residents to meet and discuss this issue.

There is indeed genuine cause for concern by all Malaysians regarding how well is the nation and states preparing for this calamity.

Response from the govt

On Jan 20 this year, Ismail Sabri remarked “bad weather warning issued but ignored”. Shah Alam Police Chief Assistant Commissioner Baharudin Mat Taib had advised people to look out for themselves and their families and always be prepared for any eventualities due to flooding. 

He had also said: “We also need the cooperation of the people to channel flood-related information or the discovery of drowning victims to us” and had provided fixed line telephone numbers of the Shah Alam district headquarters operations room at 03-5520 2000 or 03-5520 2022, for the public to call and contact with such information.

In March 2022, the Minister of Environment and Water Datuk Seri Tuan Ibrahim Tuan Mat informed that the Department of Irrigation and Drainage implements a flood forecast and warning programme which aims to provide early warning to agencies responsible for disaster management and the public and that sirens will be sounded when the water level exceeds a certain threshold value to give early warnings to locals with flood forecasts as early as seven days and warnings as early as two days provided to locations expected to face flooding.

On June 11, 2022, Minerals and Geoscience Department Malaysia (JMG) DG Hisamuddin Termidi informed that an EWS to detect geological disasters, especially debris flow, developed by JMG in partnership with Universiti Teknologi Malaysia has been installed at the Titi Hayun Recreational Forest to provide advance warning in the event of a water surge phenomenon in the area.

On Aug 9, 2022, the Forestry Department DG Datuk Indera Mohd Ridza Awang announced that the department will install early warning systems at 20 forest eco parks at risk of landslides and water surges.

The system will be installed at strategic locations in areas at risk of water surges and will issue a warning siren when such incidents occur to warn visitors to get out of and evacuate the high-risk areas increasing their chances of survival.

On Sept 7 this year, the Fire and Rescue Department reported that there are 73 dangerous locations nationwide that are at risk of being hit by a water surge with the highest numbers in Kedah, 20 high-risk areas followed by Selangor, 17 high-risk areas. Terengganu has nine such locations followed by Perak and Johor (six each), Kelantan (five), Pahang (four) Sabah and Sarawak (two each), Perlis and Negri Sembilan (one each). 

On Sept 12, 2022, Ismail Sabri announced that the central disaster management committee meeting has agreed that the district disaster management committees (JPBD) chaired by the district officer are to be immediately activated to face the northeast monsoon and floods and their role in all disaster locations strengthened. The PM highlighted that this is because the JPBD has an important function to carry out rescue works and aid delivery at disaster locations while the National Disaster Management Agency and the state disaster management committees (JPBN) coordinate at the central and state level respectively.

December 2021, early 2022 floods victims

a) Flood victims nationwide from December 2021 flood

IGP Tan Sri Acryl Sani Abdullah Sani reported on Dec 27, 2021, that the state with the highest number of deaths was Selangor with 25 victims (17 men and 8 women), followed by Pahang (20 — 14 men, four women and 2 boys) and Kelantan (3 — 2 men and a girl). 

Among these victims in Selangor included — as reported by Baharudin — two men discovered on Dec 19 at 4.15pm and 8.03pm at the traffic light of Kemuning Utama in Section 33 and near Alam Idaman in Section 22; a man found at Section 25 disaster operations centre; a man found in a drain underneath Elite Highway near MSU; two women found in a Section 25 terrace house and a 78-year-old father and his 48-year-old daughter found in a single storey terrace house in Taman Sri Muda, Shah Alam.

Victims found in Pahang included a factory operator who had fallen off a motorcycle while attempting to ride through a flooded road and discovered near a Chinese cemetery at Gambang, near Kuantan; a father and son swept away by strong currents when wading through the flooded football field in Mentakab, Temerloh; four victims had drowned in a mudslide in Telemong, Bentong; three people including a six-year-old boy and the owner of the chalet have been swept away by a column of water at the Bobby Eco Camp resort compound in Bentong and two occupants at a Janda Baik resort were found drowned. 

b) Victims of water surge at Gunung Suku in Simpang Pulai, Perak

On May 15, 2022, the sudden surge of water and soil from a stream as a result of heavy rainfall swept away two hikers — part of a group of 29 hikers — who were hiking along a trail on the hill at Gunung Suku in Simpang Pulai. In the following days, the Search and Rescue Team found two body parts, believed to be from the victims. Perak Forestry Department director Datuk Mohamed Zain Yusop remarked that the department will temporarily stop issuing any permits to enter the forest reserve due to the dangerous situation arising from the present heavy downpour and thunderstorms.

c) Victims from floods in Baling, Kedah 

In the July 6, 2022 flood, at least three people whose house was swept away by strong currents had died; a 53-year-old bedridden woman suffering from stroke and her 23-year-old daughter-in-law who was four months pregnant found in an embrace under a pile of logs 100m from their collapsed house and the 14-year-old son of the later who was found not far away. Some news reported that this incident in Baling was due to a burst reservoir.

Observation

From the above brief on flood victims, it is evident that floods result in the death of persons of different gender, age including vulnerable groups comprising children, women, elderly persons and in a myriad of situations.

The government’s great efforts in identifying 73 dangerous locations nationwide that are at risk of being hit by a water surge and EWS being installed in 20 forest eco parks at risk of landslides and water surges as well as warning signs posted in at-risk areas to warn public of danger is indeed laudable.

In addition to flood victims found in recreational areas and eco-resorts, flood victims were also found trapped at homes, swept away from collapsed homes, swept away while wading through flooded football fields, fallen into drains and victims on motorbikes swept by strong currents.

Recommendations for Malaysia

Malaysia’s EWS should be a community-centred system that supports till the last mile based on the end-to-end early warning system for flood forecasting (E2E-EWS-FF) a World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) framework to promote the enhancement of flood forecasting and early warning capabilities aligned with the Sendai Framework. (see Diagram 1 below)

Practical Action dovetails that reaching the last mile focuses on communicating risk effectively to the people most vulnerable to disasters and that for people to protect themselves from hazards, they need to receive information, understand it and be able to act on the information. 

However, there are many complex barriers faced by vulnerable communities: When information is shared via text message, people without access to a mobile phone can’t receive the information. If information is not communicated in local languages, or if technical or unclear wording is used, people who receive the information may not be able to understand it. If people don’t know what actions to take, are afraid of losing their possessions, don’t have anywhere safe to go, or do not have decision-making power, they will not be able to act on the information.

Thus, efforts must be strengthened in improving the “last mile” of the chain of actions designed to reach people on the ground or the affected communities including the vulnerable groups such as women, children, the elderly, the disabled, migrants and displaced populations.

Diagram 1: The essential components under the complete framework of E2E-EWS-FF

Source: WMO

 

1. As evident from the diagram above, an early warning does not just stop at early warning dissemination but also requires decision support of relevant agencies receiving these warnings as well as critically the responses from both relevant authorities, the affected communities and the public.

2. Early warning can continue to be disseminated via traditional communication channels of TV and radio but should be expanded to use modern communications channels such as the Internet and social media to ensure alerts and warnings reach as wide a community as possible.

In particular as the contact information of Malaysians and those residing in Malaysia are already recorded in the Covid-19 SMS platform, the government should use the same or similar channel to send flood alerts and warning as this would be more impactful than advising citizens to refer to MetMalaysia and other relevant websites.

3. It is imperative for authorities at the district, state and national level to provide information to various stakeholders in addition to tourists to recreational parks covering persons inside homes, offices, schools, resorts and parks, in transportation hubs such as airports, ports, train station and bus stations and persons walking in open spaces and motorists in cars and on motorbikes/bicycles on the necessary actions and steps to be taken before, during and after the flood. International best practice on these includes among others advisory offered by US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and FEMA.

4. Townhall sessions could be conducted to share more information regarding the impending disaster and gather queries from the public and respond to them accordingly.

5. Training and drills should be started soon to guide citizens and communities on ways to respond when faced with these hazards.

6. It is vital for the government to provide hazard maps and hazard risk maps to the organisations responsible for disaster management and the public with detailed information regarding areas/locations potential of being impacted by hazards such as floods similar to that provided by the US FEMA in which these organisations and interested persons can key in their address or location and a hazard map with details of the risk of flood illustrated on the map is generated. This detailed information is critical to guide organisations to make necessary preparations to enhance disaster management efforts and for the public to take the correct and timely action and response for their safety and survival.

It is hoped that the presentation by Science, Technology and Innovation (Mosti) Minister Dr Adham Baba to the PM this Thursday at MRANTI Park on the technology developed by the Malaysian Space Agency using satellites for data observation through the radar and optical methods in locations with frequent floods based on 10 years of experience which is intended to warn the government about flood hotspots when the monsoon sets in so that preparations can be made in advance, will include this service also to the public. 

With reference to related ministries’ announcement of the development of hazard maps of selected areas, a collaboration of relevant public and private stakeholders must develop a portal for the public to assess to gather detailed information regarding their area/location’s potential of being impacted by hazards including floods by keying in their address or location to guide Malaysians towards enhanced safety.

7. Disaster management agencies at national, state and local levels should have a variety of communication channels for those affected to reach them. The present fix or landline would be overwhelmed during disaster preventing more to contact these agencies to seek help for rescue.

8. Public should be encouraged to share details of the location, and condition of these hazards via various communications channels to help and support disaster management agencies have more detailed information about the hazard via crowdsourcing as well as to provide rescue teams with locations of affected communities to facilitate and hasten rescue operations. 

9. In view that 2ft of water could overturn vehicles and boats and those previous flood events had reported that food and other aid could not reach those affected as boats and lorries were overturned by the fast-moving flood waters, the government must embrace new technologies such as drones to locate flood victims as well as to send food and aid to them. It is encouraging that Mosti has such plans in the pipeline

10. Disaster and responses to it should be introduced as a syllabus in schools even starting at the primary school level to prepare Malaysians to be familiar with these hazards and be better prepared to respond and react to them for enhanced safety. 

  • Sheriffah Noor Khamseah Al-Idid Datuk Syed Ahmad Idid
    Innovation and Nuclear Advocate
    Alumna, Imperial College, University of London, UK
Dayang Norazhar

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