Flooding and development

ON Nov 4-5, Penang, Kedah and Perak were lashed by unprecedented disastrous weather of intense heavy rain and high velocity winds causing massive flooding and landslides.

The Meteorological Department attributed this phenomenon to the fringe effects of typhoon Doksury that struck Vietnam.

Others contend that it was the unfettered hillside development that caused this disaster, citing the multi-million ringgit mansions and condominiums in Tanjung Bunga and Batu Ferringhi, the middle-income and affordable housing schemes in the Thean Teik Area in Air Itam and in Sungai Dua. In addition, there is the massive high-rise condominiums and high-end landed property development from Jalan Tengah to the airport. Furthermore, all open spaces in the city including around the traditional Malay kampungs in George Town have become built-up areas. The once open grounds have been replaced by concrete pavements.

Without forest cover as catchment areas and open grounds to absorb and retain the water, the runoffs become critical, flooding the low-lying areas. The shallow rivers, unable to contain the runoffs quickly, become swollen and breach their banks flooding the surrounding areas. Such situations are further aggravated if heavy rains occur during high tides, preventing the flood waters from flowing out to sea.

Except for limited development in certain areas on the mainland, Butterworth, as in the Mak Mandin Industrial Estates, housing around Bukit Mertajam, Butterworth town and Kulim, the greater part of these areas is pristine kampung and paddy lands. They were also flooded not because of slope cutting or hillside developments but because they are flat lands barely above sea level, thus susceptible to flooding when the Sungai Muda, channelling water from Kedah meandering on its way to sea, breached its banks. And flood waters in the kampungs and paddy fields could remain stagnant for days before the river level subsides and allows the water to flow out to sea during a low tide. A combination of man's activities, inclement weather and tides all contributed to the disaster.

Some segments of society had a field day in assigning blame for this disaster. Others demanded a public apology from the state government and even hurled accusations to chastise and reproach the authorities. In Malaysia, irrespective of the true nature of the occurrences, such disasters offer opportunities to score political points. Even God was invoked indicating the floods as a harbinger of political change. It is rather trite and betrays the immaturity of Malaysian politics that could not rise above sectarian interests for the benefit of those affected by the disaster.

The question that crops up is sustainability of development within the constraints of environmental conservation. Development is, however, central to the progress of a nation and the evolution of lifestyles. Urban and rural developments are both constructive as well as destructive. Forest cover is stripped for agricultural and industrial activities, shelter and leisure and recreation, business and retail trade enclaves. Invariably these activities upset the delicate balance of the environment and cause disasters among which are floods and landslides.

Floods are natural phenomena that are an integral part of nature's climatological and geomorphologic manifestations. Before the advent of man and animals, the ecosystem remained pristine with volcanic eruptions, floods, earthquakes, fire and other natural phenomena being part of the process of terrestrial evolution.

Early human habitations, which were mostly in riverine sites, fit into this ecosystem without disrupting the environment. And natural disasters like flooding, landslips, volcanic eruptions and draught, which are regarded as fait accompli, became an integral part of their lifestyles cycles. As communities evolve and progress, man's activities encroached on the natural landscape disrupting the balance of the ecosystem, adversely affecting animals and plants.

Floods, which are intended as nature's renewable mechanism, have become more severe when man impedes the natural flow of things. Such flooding is a common occurrence in Malaysia as it is an equatorial country, hot and wet throughout the year. And it is subjected to the northeast and southwest monsoon winds together with the sumatras during the inter-monsoon periods bringing copious rain and strong winds. Sometimes both Peninsular Malaysia, Sabah and Sarawak experience high velocity winds and heavy rain from fringes of typhoons from South China Sea and Bay of Bengal.

The east coast states of Kelantan, Terengganu and Pahang usually bear the brunt of the northeast monsoon winds causing widespread flooding, which could be further aggravated by legal and illegal logging, agricultural activities and habitat developments.

West coast states too have had their share of floods brought about by monsoon and inter-monsoon winds. Even Putrajaya, which was designed to alleviate flooding, has not been spared.

Kedah and Perlis, being low-lying areas are usually flooded with seasonal rains and the water usually takes from a few days to a week to subside. Disastrous floods struck these two states in 2010. There have been massive floods in Johor in 2006 and 2011, while flash floods are common in Kuala Lumpur and the Klang Valley. Cameron Highlands has frequently experienced massive landslides and flooding.

That flooding is an annual occurrence is borne by the existence of various flood disaster management government agencies under the National Security Council as well as in the police, armed forces and fire and rescue agencies.

The standard operating procedure for these agencies is to react to such flood situations in the shortest possible time by anticipating and monitoring situations in both flood-prone and other unexpected areas with the help of the Meteorological Department. These agencies should not wait for a call for help but anticipate emergencies by being vigilant and rendering help without being asked.

The federal aid disbursed to the affected states should be equitable and not lopsided. For example, according to official figures the federal aid for flood disasters from 2013 to 2017 favoured the east coast states with Kelantan getting RM90.34 million. Pahang received RM41.14 million and Terengganu RM34.05 million. Those west coast states receive much less with Penang receiving the least, only RM35,500. The minister said such discrepancies were unintended and based on the policy of allocating aid for floods due to the northeast monsoon winds and not for flash floods. There should be a common policy to address floods and not according to vagaries in the nature of winds that cause floods.

The experience gained during the floods in Penang, Kedah and Perak should help these disaster agencies review their SOP and be more vigilant in monitoring potential disaster situations and also to channel aid appropriately and immediately.

There is now a dire need to pursue and implement a policy of sustainable development not only to avert future disasters but to preserve plants and protect animals, which are our heritage. But the pressure against sustainable development is formidable when the authorities have to fulfil peoples' needs for housing, food cultivation and jobs in industries. All of these needs require the opening up of new land, sacrificing forest lands and woods. Also, the lure of profit and greed have contributed to the depletion of forest land through legal and illegal logging activities that contravenes environmental impact policies.

The situation becomes critical when those who are charged with the responsibility to safeguard the forests themselves become corrupt and misuse their position for profit. Unless the authorities take a more responsible and severe stance, the policy of sustainable development would become a mockery. In such cases, man will suffer because of his abusive nature for violating nature's sanctity. And nature's resultant fury knows no bounds and man's supposedly sophisticated technology would seem puny against the turbulence of nature.

Professor Emeritus Datuk Dr Mohamed Ghouse Nasuruddin is an honorary fellow at the Centre for Policy Research and International Studies, Universiti Sains Malaysia. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com