Being Human: Taming the floods starts with good forest governance

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This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on January 9 - 15, 2017.


As the people of the East Coast states continue to grapple with the onslaught of the Northeast Monsoon which has brought serious flooding in its wake, questions arise about the adequacy of mitigation measures that have been adopted to date to minimise the impacts of the weather on human settlements in these areas.

An indication that official responses to the disaster have not quite addressed the core issues lies in statements such as Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi’s call on Thursday for the Kelantan government to cooperate with the federal authorities in adopting holistic solutions to deal with the annual floods.

In highlighting the importance of environmental protection as the best way to handle the seasonal floods, Ahmad Zahid ironically reveals the tendency of the authorities to still treat environmental problems as an after-effect of development that must be dealt with to mitigate their toll.

Yet, today, perhaps more than ever before in recorded history, we need to reorient our relationship with nature — from an exploitative to a nurturing one — whereby human activity is consciously directed to healing the earth instead of pushing nature out of the way to whet our insatiable appetite for development.

Additionally, Ahmad Zahid’s call to the Kelantan government suggests that political partisanship between the federal and state governments is a core issue in Putrajaya’s efforts to address flood mitigation in the state.

There is no doubt that Kelantan, which has been a PAS stronghold for the longest time, has been a thorn in the side of the Barisan Nasional coalition that controls the federal government. But the floods have hit not only Kelantan, but also BN-run states including Terengganu, Pahang, Johor, Sarawak and Sabah, while other states are on standby as well.

Obviously, environmental impacts are not confined by administrative boundaries. The political perspective therefore tends to obscure the larger issues of ecologically sound resource management that must be addressed to minimise the impacts of adverse weather phenomena.

Deforestation was cited as a key factor in the major flooding that hit five states in the peninsula in December 2014 and January 2015. Satellite data made available on Global Forest Watch showed that Pahang, Perak, Kelantan, Johor and Terengganu each lost more than 10% of their forest cover between 2001 and 2012, the period covered in a University of Maryland study on deforestation.

In that episode, which the National Security Council described as the worst floods to hit the country in decades, close to 240,000 people were made homeless and the damage to property, infrastructure and the economy was estimated in the hundreds of millions.

Although the current floods are nowhere near that of 2014 event in scale, the number of victims who have been displaced — estimated at 23,000 in Kelantan and Terengganu alone — is not insignificant and warrants a re-visit of the measures taken since then.

In terms of disaster preparedness at the national, state and local levels, the 2014 disaster has certainly served as a wake-up call and the current state of flood response in the affected regions shows that early warning systems have been effective in reducing losses and saving lives.

A National Disaster Management Agency has also been established to coordinate government agencies involved in relief operations in order to ensure that assistance to victims is channelled in an effective and orderly manner.

The announcement of RM800 million for flood mitigation works for Kelantan under the 11th Malaysia Plan — consisting of a RM300 million project for the Sungai Golok Basin and a RM500 million scheme to deepen Sungai Kelantan and build an embankment along the river — further illustrates the emphasis on remedial measures rather than the ecological use of resources that would signal the transformation necessary to secure an environmentally sound future.

To catalyse a paradigm shift towards environmental integrity requires perhaps the motivation to transcend the politics of development after all.

It is well acknowledged that a weak link in the management of the nation’s natural resources is the reliance of state governments on forestry as a source of revenue. To alleviate the pressure on this life-sustaining resource, a way must be found to wean state administrations of their dependence on the exploitation of their forests.

As one of only 17 countries in the world that are considered megadiverse, with at least 20% of the world’s known species, the impetus to conserve Malaysia’s forests has not only a national dimension, but involves international obligations as well.

However, an indispensable part of conservation involves the nurturing of resources at the local level. It is only when the local communities are entrusted to ensure the sustainable management of the natural resources on which their lives are so closely dependent upon that our forests will be safe from the frenzy of exploitation that unleashes the wrath of nature when the cycle of the seasons rolls around.

To that end, hope lies in the will of the local communities to stake their claim on the health of the environment by empowering themselves as stakeholders in its management.

R B Bhattacharjee is associate editor at The Edge Malaysia