Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 25 December 2006

Floods should spur urgent action

It’s Christmas and the season to be merry.  But just as the tsunami struck at this time two years ago, the floods in several states in Malaysia have this year dampened the Christmas-New Year spirit.  It seems Mother Nature is sounding alarm bells about climate change, natural calamities and the need to take care of the environment – a Christmas message we should heed.


It looks as though the Christmas-New Year festive season has become an occasion to be reminded of Mother Nature and the need for good relations with the environment.

Two years ago, a day after Christmas, the earthquake off Northern Sumatra set off a giant tsunami that engulfed neighbouring countries, with unprecedented devastation to life and property.

Malaysia was not spared, and the mood in that holiday season turned from festive to tragic.  

In the past few days, many parts of the Malaysian peninsular, particularly Johore, Malacca and Pahang, have been hit by the worst floods in living memory.

Throughout the country, the festive atmosphere has been dampened.  In the worst affected areas, there has been incredible hardship as flood waters have swept into houses and plunged roads, buildings and motor vehicles under water.

More than 80,000 have been evacuated as of last Friday, and several have died.  The scenes of families scrambling to find temporary safety by climbing onto walls and roofs as their belongings float away from their homes have touched the hearts of all.

As we view these scenes on TV or the newspapers, the words of the once-popular song are easily recalled:  “There, but for fortune, go you and I.”

Just as the tsunami of 2004 hit many hundreds of Malaysians in their coastal homes, or as they picnicked at the beach, the floods of 2006 have caught so many thousands of other Malaysians by surprise.

It could happen to any of us, at any time, and we would probably be caught in the same state of unpreparedness. 

Among the most touching of the tragic stories last week is that of the conscientious young teacher, Mageswary.  She set out at dawn from her house last Wednesday morning to attend a school meeting in Kluang -- not knowing the meeting had already been cancelled due to the floods.

At six that morning, she called her colleague to inform that her car was stranded on a flooded road.  She and her uncle never made it to safety.  They were found the next day in their car submerged in three meters of water. 

The debate continues as to the causes of this worst flood in a century.  A record volume of rain has fallen over the area in just a few days. The typhoon Utor, coming from the Philippines, may also have contributed. 

Many believe that even if Mother Nature is the primary cause, the situation has been made worse by humanity’s lack of respect for the environment.  In recent years, there have been deforestation, the chopping of hills, silting of rivers and inadequate drainage.

Thus the impact of rain is magnified by the poor state of the environment and the drainage system, worsening the extent of flooding.

The havoc caused by floods is probably going to be more severe than that caused by tsunami, simply because the incidence of flooding (which can happen many times in a year) and the numbers of people affected are much higher.

The machinery for preventing, managing and responding to floods must thus be very much strengthened.  The crisis this Christmas should be taken as an alarm bell going off loudly.

Even if the massive rainfall is mainly to blame this time, that could be due to regional and global patterns of climate change caused to a large extent by human interference with Nature.

Other parts of the world have also seen unusual climatic behaviour this Christmas season.  In many parts of Europe, the temperature has been much warmer.  Many holiday resorts which rely on skiing have had to close because there is no snow. 

In Russia and Scandinavian countries, which are usually very cold this time of the year, flowers, herbs and mushrooms are unexpectedly in bloom, and the Christmas is reported to be “green not white”.

Scientists will probably conclude that this is all part of the global warming phenomenon.  This year, there have been many reports of glaciers receding and ice caps melting, signs that the dreaded climate change is taking place at a pace much faster than anticipated.

If 2006 was the year of increased awareness of the dangers of climate change – helped by former United States Vice President Al Gore’s movie “An Inconvenient Truth” – then 2007 will see a more determined push by scientists, environmental groups and some Western countries to get the world to commit to do more to arrest this dangerous trend.

We don’t however need a global agreement before deciding to do something serious to reverse the state of our environment, to prevent and offset the causes of natural calamities, and to take mitigating measures to manage crises as they arise.

The floods this Christmas are a warning sign, which should be spur the nation to action.