Act now to prevent future disasters

The country is still reeling from the after-effect of the devastating year-end floods that ravaged at least seven states.

Many are still displaced at temporary shelters and rely on government and well-wishers’ food aid including donations from China and Japan. Besides the initial RM800million allocated for initial flood relief efforts, the government is now staring at a hefty reconstruction bill that may run into billions.

As Malaysia begins to count the costs from the recent disaster, it is imperative that the government conduct a thorough post-mortem on the causes of the massive floods, learn the lessons and prepare for the future.

We therefore support the views expressed by Martin Khor in his Global Trends column dated 19 Jan in the Star.

As pointed out by the author, “recent events and climate science strongly indicate that the 2014-15 downpour and floods are not one-off events but part of a national, regional and global pattern linked to climate change and extreme weather events.” Hence, in future years, we can expect the situation to worsen.

Khor refers to a paper by the former head of the Malaysian Meteorological Department (MMD) and others, that Malaysia“has experienced increase in temperature, consistent with the global warming trend”. According to the paper, “the global temperature increase has led to changes in weather including major wind patterns, amount and intensity of precipitation, and increased frequency of severe storms and weather extremes.”

Clearly, we have to be absolutely prepared for dealing with extreme weather events in the future. To do this, it is imperative that Malaysia beefs up its climate action plans in mitigation, adaptation and loss-and-damage.

This is not just a matter for the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (MNRE) which is the national climate change focal point, but is a matter for a high-powered coordinating council under the Prime Minister’s Department which also pays attention to disaster-risk reduction and ensures the climate proofing of development plans.

There is urgent need to prioritise climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction by mainstreaming them into development planning. We cannot afford to pay scant attention in this regard, given what we have witnessed in the wake of the recent disaster.

Another top priority must be to address deforestation or the mismanagement of forests. Even the National Security Council’s chairman Datuk Seri ShahidanKassim, who is also minister in the Prime Minister’s Department is now calling for a moratorium on logging.

Our forests are natural flood mitigation and adaptation assets that have been taken for granted and appreciated only for the value of its timber. Deforestation and forest degradation are a major contributing factor in exacerbating the effects of the recent floods, besides the prolonged, heavier-than-usual, year-end rainfall.

Converting natural forests to monoculture plantations must also share blame for the recent devastation we have witnessed. Plantations are not forests and do not play the same ecological functions as natural forests do in mitigation and adaptation.Hence, the conservation of forests, rehabilitation and replanting of degraded areas with a variety of forests species is critical.

Also vital, as pointed out by Khor, is having soil conservation as a strategy; the de-silting of rivers and streams; the vast improvement of drainage in urban and rural areas; climate-proofing of buildings, including building new schools and houses on stilts or on pillars in flood-prone areas; protecting coastal areas from storms, winds and high waves including through conserving and replanting mangroves.

We also agree on the need for a whole set of activities for better management of floods and other disasters, including establishment of permanent evacuation centres; early warning systems; earlier and better systems of evacuation; stocking and distribution of food, clean water, medicines and other essentials to victims; plans for repair and rehabilitation; and the up-front allocation of financing.

It is vital for the Federal and State governments to set aside significant resources for the efforts mentioned above.

In addition, the Federal government can help States by tapping into international funds such as that which is available under the Green Climate Fund (GCF), established under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) for funding climate actions in mitigation and adaptation, including for the protection of forests. About US$10billion has been committed to the GCF for the next 4 years, and Malaysia can benefit from this.

Let us act now with urgency and take the right steps in preparing for the impending climate related disasters. Let us learn from the lessons and not repeat the mistakes made.

Letter to the Press, 20 Jan 2015