THE worst year-end floods to hit the country in decades have taken a harrowing toll on the people in eight states, sweeping a quarter of a million victims out of their homes during an apocalyptic week. The scale of the deluge was certainly beyond the expectations of the weather experts. Indeed, in late October, the National Security Council (NSC) had said, ironically, that it was taking no chances with its preparations although the Meteorological Department had forecast that “normal flooding” was expected for the Northeast Monsoon season.
NSC secretary Datuk Mohamed Thajudeen Abdul Wahab had told The Star daily that the council was taking a cue from 2013, when the Meteorological Department had forecast a normal monsoon too. However, in December 2013, when floods hit Kuantan, the rainfall recorded in the first three days of December was 900mm, three times more than for the entire month of December 2012.
Unlike the proverbial lightning that supposedly does not strike twice at the same place, unusual rain appears to be showing up more frequently.
Last October, the NSC secretary had already pointed out that climate change had made it more difficult to predict the weather. But as we now can tell, estimates of rainfall variability and consequently, levels of disaster preparedness, have been nowhere near to being useful during the current flooding binge.
Indeed, Mohamed Thajudeen told The Star last week that there had been a “complete collapse” of its disaster management response at the district level since the frontliners of its ground level machinery — who include village headmen and district officers — had themselves become flood victims.
As is now well known, the consequences of this breakdown have been heart-wrenching for untold numbers of victims. The horrors include being stranded without food or water for days, which led to looting in some areas. Of course, infants, the elderly and the sick were the most vulnerable in these situations, as a number of reports from the flood-hit areas have recorded.
A BBC report on Dec 31, for example, focused the lens on ground zero. Describing a scene in Kuala Kerai, Kelantan, it showed food supplies arriving at a village after more than a week. The delivery was insufficient, so local officials had to repack them into smaller portions so that everyone could have something. To add to the problem, truck drivers reported diesel shortages as petrol stations were inundated, compounding the difficulty faced in moving supplies to the affected areas because of road closures and damaged infrastructure.
The report provides a glimpse of the challenges facing the victims as they cling on to hope, struggling to find their feet again, and the obstacles standing in the way of relief workers who are doing all they can in the midst of a systemic failure.
The scenario in Kuala Kerai tells a bigger story, since the town is on relatively higher ground. Even then, it was not spared by the floods, and thousands of homes were totally submerged, the report said.
Pictures and videos that have emerged from the flood-hit areas show the remains of wooden houses uprooted, some lying in a pile like so many matchsticks; roads, drains and bridges that have been washed away; and vehicles lying in heaps, like so many discarded toys.
In the midst of such odds, there was heart-warming evidence that the human spirit will always triumph over adversity, with stories of good Samaritans mounting rescue missions, sharing essential supplies and giving shelter to the displaced. And as always, Malaysians have responded generously to help those whose lives have been turned topsy-turvy by the muddy waters that gushed through their homes.
For those who had lost everything in the flood, including their homes, many of which were washed completely away as if by a tsunami, there is also the psychological trauma that has to be overcome.
Already, early estimates indicate that federal and state governments will need to spend over RM1 billion to repair damaged infrastructure, including roads, bridges and drainage facilities. This does not include the losses suffered by businesses and the belongings lost by house owners.
In a move towards recovery, Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin has announced that a post-mortem is in the works to identify the causes of the exceptional flooding. As the National Disaster Management Committee chairman, he has also ordered a review of the standard operating procedures for flood relief to cope with the growing unpredictability of the weather.
A key element of a successful review of this crisis is the mindset transformation about the possibility that unexpected changes are taking place in the weather. A meaningful response will result in a shift from the “old” attitude that we are experiencing a freak phenomenon, which implies that the next such occurrence may not be very soon, to an approach that accepts unusual climatic changes as the new normal.
Such a mindset shift would open our minds to the possibility that while the unusually heavy rainfall that we are experiencing last happened over 30 years ago, it may come again next year, or a few years from now.
If this view is taken, it becomes clear that non-standard operating procedures must be developed to encompass all levels of the national disaster response machinery so that extraordinary resources can be mobilised to cope with another flood like the one that just hit us.
A multi-level, dynamic and responsive national mobilisation plan that draws upon public, private and civil society resources then becomes the basic machinery to have in place for climate-related disasters. This machinery can then be stress-tested in anticipation of the annual floods to remedy any weaknesses that could result in the “complete collapse” of the district-level disaster response apparatus that made the current floods a double calamity.
R B Bhattacharjee is associate editor at The Edge
This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on January 05 - 11, 2014.