KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 22 – The rain started on Friday (December 17) and did not let up. Soon, pleas for help came as well as photos and videos on social media, showing the rising water level and submerged cars and houses in parts of Selangor and Kuala Lumpur.
The floods caught Klang Valley residents by surprise. The government called it a once-in-a-century event. But if climate scientists are correct, Malaysia can expect heavier rainfall and more flooding in the future.
“We cannot point to (the weather) as our only factor that contributed to this disaster. The human factor is the biggest contributing factor to this disaster,” said environmental scientist Associate Prof Dr Haliza Abdul Rahman, who is attached to Universiti Putra Malaysia.
Now the waters have receded and people are questioning how it was possible for the Klang Valley to be so unprepared for the floods. Although the Malaysian Meteorological Department (MET Malaysia) had issued warnings of continuous rainfall in the Klang Valley and other areas, no flood warnings and alerts were issued in the Klang Valley until it was too late.
Meteorologist Prof Datuk Dr Azizan Abu Samah said meteorological services in three countries had been tracking the low-pressure system responsible for the rain for days and had alerted the government of the incoming heavy continuous rain.
“So my question is, where was Nadma (National Disaster Management Agency), where was NSC (Malaysian National Security Council)?” he asked.
Some evacuation efforts did take place when the water started rising, according to news reports, but some people refused to leave their homes as they were either worried about catching Covid-19 if they went to the evacuation centre or thought the flooding would not be serious.
Experts say the disaster has shown a need for, along with a more effective rapid warning and response system, more policy changes by the government to address and mitigate the effects of climate change better and to increase awareness among the public.
Early warning system
Despite the warnings from MET Malaysia, the flooding took the government and Klang Valley residents by surprise, possibly because of all the conditions that had to come together to make it possible.
The Klang Valley, located in a low-lying basin on the southwestern part of Peninsular Malaysia, now rarely floods to the scale it used to. But the amount of rain that fell on Friday and Saturday was more than the average monthly rainfall of 200mm – the Sentul station recorded 363mm – something Environment and Water Ministry secretary-general Datuk Seri Dr Zaini Ujang noted would likely happen only once in a century.
According to Dr Azizan, who is also director of the National Antarctic Centre, a tropical depression had formed from a low-pressure system in the South China Sea, which then moved inward to Peninsular Malaysia, passing the Titiwangsa Range, causing the rain.
“On top of that – it’s a really nice recipe – it was nearly full moon so the full moon tides were coming in, so for Klang, (the sea level) was about 4.6m. So the water that wanted to go out couldn’t go out. So you have all the nice things for a disaster,” he added.
All the experts Bernama talked to said an early warning system was crucial to prevent damage and loss of life. In order for it to work, all relevant agencies need to liaise better to alert the public.
Dr Azizan said the agencies – Nadma, MET Malaysia and the Department of Irrigation and Drainage – failed to warn Klang Valley residents in time, despite having a good flood warning system.
“The system is there already but if you look at the Kelantan case (and) the east coast, they have a really good warning (system) because it happens quite frequently. And you can see (the warnings on) Facebook etc. but I don’t know why they didn’t do it for Selangor,” he said.
Dr Haliza agreed, saying the agencies should always be aware of weather events and possible complications and share data with each other so they can warn the public.
“It’s a good lesson for us. We can’t only blame (the weather event). In the future, we need to have a very good early warning system for floods because flooding is the main disaster in our country,” she said.
For the early warning system, she suggested the government adopt the Covid-19 warning system for natural disasters by utilising social media and text messaging to warn the public and convey the seriousness of the threat quickly.
She said other ways include taking the cue from the Japanese on how they deal with disasters, such as using sirens to warn people of an emergency, and requiring drills in workplaces and schools.
But warnings mean nothing without action.
Climate change researcher Yin Shao Loong of Khazanah Research Institute told Bernama via WhatsApp that the early warning system should include measures for preparedness and faster disaster response by Nadma.
“The burden cannot be on the public to take care of themselves yet again if government resources are slow to be deployed,” he said.
The government has pledged RM100 million and more to those affected by the recent floods, although experts doubt it will be enough to cover all the losses.
More importantly, this is something Malaysia can barely afford if such disasters keep recurring. The World Bank estimates Malaysia loses about US$1.3 billion annually due to climate change, mainly through flooding.
Yin said the floods showed that Malaysia was not ready to face the impact of climate change.
“There are systemic problems all the way from the way natural systems are changing due to human actions – deforestation makes floods worse and affects the hydrological cycle while climate change makes weather more extreme – to human systems like unsustainable urban development without proper river basin management and drainage, and a lack of effective disaster coordination and management by the government,” he said.
He said to help mitigate flooding in the future, the government should stop delaying river-rerouting and drainage projects.
“Financing prevention will spare us the greater burden of financing recovery,” he added.
As for the public, Dr Haliza said they should be more aware of severe weather and what it can mean, and should also know how to prepare for emergencies. For example, if they are stranded at home, they must have supplies such as drinking water, dry food, medicine and a powerbank to charge their phones. For those who have to evacuate, they must keep their important documents in a waterproof bag and have their phone with powerbank, medicine and extra clothing with them.
“Those things are a must-have to survive while waiting for help from relevant agencies, especially for those who have kids or elderly people to take care of,” she said.