Malaysia: Now What, After the Floods?
By Renard Siew 23 March, 2022
Malaysia's worst floods are a wake-up call to step up adaptation. Dr Siew, climate change advisor from Cent-GPS shares his views on the challenges & ways forward
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A deadly ‘once-in-a-century’ flood wreaked havoc in Malaysia last December, displacing over 120,000 people. At the same time, repair works on already damaged infrastructure could cost the government almost US$240 million. For better insight on the infrastructure issues and flood related challenges the Malaysian government is facing we sat down with Dr Renard Siew, Climate Change Advisor at the Centre for Governance and Political Studies.
Note: Soon after this interview, flash floods hit Malaysia’s Klang Valley, encompassing the capital Kuala Lumpur and areas in surrounding Selangor state again.
CWR: As a climate expert, were you shocked by the scale of the floods in the West Coast of Peninsular Malaysia late last year?
Renard Siew (RS): I wouldn’t say that we were entirely shocked at the scale of it. Scientists have warned that we only have less than a dozen of years left to cap temperatures from increasing by 1.5 degree Celsius, beyond which we will be seeing more extreme weather events floods, droughts, wildfires intensifying.
The science is clear. The recent IPCC report was also called a “Code Red for Humanity” a warning of much worst impacts to come.
The flood was a wake up call…
…we need to review whether our adaptation efforts are adequate under worst-case scenarios
The flood situation in the West Coast was probably one of the worst that the country has experienced, while some have called it a “once in a 100 years event”, the reality is we have already seen similar flood incidences happening in New York, China and Germany back to back within the same year.
This flood event is a wake-up call for us to accelerate our efforts on addressing the impacts of climate change. The discourse in Malaysia is primarily centred on climate mitigation (cutting down on emissions) but it’s also time we step up our efforts to review whether our adaptation efforts are adequate under worst-case scenarios.
CWR: Infrastructure is clearly an area that needs serious improvement to better protect against such floods. What needs to happen exactly? And what about protecting against rising sea levels?
RS: There are a number of flood mitigation (both ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ infrastructure) approaches that can be taken to better protect against such floods. There is no one size fits all answer and depends very much on the geographical context and the landscape of an area.
There are a number of mitigation approaches…
…the real issue is where to draw the line on worst-case scenario preparation vs costs
One of the primary concerns is where do you draw the line between preparing for worst-case scenarios (expecting the worst outcomes from floods) versus the cost of investment into infrastructure- do you plan for a “once in a hundred years” or “once in a thousand years” flood events (knowing that this would incur much more cost).
Surely, better planning would be required in an urban setting for example by making sure that developments are not taking place at areas, for example, that have been designated as flood retention ponds.
Nature-based solutions such as the protection and reforestation of mangrove areas would act as the first barrier against rising sea levels. Some drainage and river systems might need to be deepened to prepare for future flood events. Feasibility studies might need to be conducted to assess the suitability of installing stormwater tunnels to divert the flow of water when the sea level rises. There also needs to be a lot of education and awareness to ensure that drainage systems are not clogged with rubbish.
CWR: Has any local institution done any risk assessments on climate risks in particular coastal threats from rising sea levels?
RS: In 2019, CENT-GPS has shared research by Climate Research originally carried out by Scott Kulp and Benjamin Strauss. Using CoastalDEM, CENT-GPS tweeted a thread on predictions of several cities that would be flooded. The response from the public was fantastic. We had 15.6K retweets by the public- clearly a fantastic engagement.
This was also picked up by a number of mainstream local media. The purpose of this sharing was really to raise much-needed awareness on climate issues. A lot of folks have been hearing about climate change in the media discussed at a high level, we call it a “30,000 feet above ground conversation” but not necessarily understanding how this might impact their day to day lives. We wanted to drive this change and get the conversation going within the local community.
CWR: Looking forward, are there any areas or hotspots in Malaysia that face greater risk to flooding? And what about rising seas? Will any critical infrastructure like Port Klang be affected?
RS: In the prediction model by Climate Central, several cities expected to be flooded included Muar, Pekan, Bagan Datoh, Teluk Intan, and Kuala Selangor.
Muar, Kuala Selangor & other cities are at risk from flooding…
The expected global sea level rise is about 1.7-3.1 mm/year but regional sea level rises here might actually be higher due to our local and topographical conditions.
The timeline that we used in the prediction model was up to 2050. The cities that have been outlined as hotspots are key economic centres that are densely populated and hence was directly linked to livelihoods.
…other areas for concern are critical infrastructure, especially ports like Port Klang that could be cut off
Another area of concern includes critical infrastructure, especially our ports (e.g. Port Klang, Penang Port, Kuantan Port) that are located along coastal areas. Accessibility to roads/transportation of goods might be cut off from these ports in the event of severe floods. Clearly, this would have a direct impact on trade and economic activities.
Already the December 2021 floods have raised alarm bells where even areas within the Klang Valley were affected. This could very well be a future that we would need to deal with. Projecting this by 2100 when the impacts of the climate crisis is expected to worsen, the potential for further disruptions to the economy and day-to-day livelihoods is a major concern.
CWR: Do you know what adaptation measures Malaysia is taking to protect its coastline?
RS: The country’s NDC under the Paris Agreement, includes adaptation measures. Adaptation actions and policies communicated in the NDC includes a broad range of areas one in particular is where the country is developing a National Coastal Vulnerability Index to map the risks related to coastal changes. There were a few pilot studies that had been conducted in Tanjung Piai and along the west coast of Pulau Langkawi using this index.
It is developing a National Coastal Vulnerability Index to map the risks related to coastal changes
This is a great first step in helping us understand the risks at areas that are prone to flooding and assist with resilience planning. It has also been reported that the country is seeking US$ 3 million from the UN Green Climate Fund to adapt to current and future climate crises.
What is important in adaptation is ensuring that no voices are left behind, that it is an inclusive process that engages with all key stakeholders!
CWR: What would you like to see happen in the next five years to better protect Malaysia?
RS: One of the things that we have been advocating for is the enactment of a Climate Change Act covering both aspects of climate mitigation and adaptation.
Want a Climate Act that covers mitigation & adaptation
There is a need to ensure that “no one is left behind”, this requires a whole of society approach ensuring that the voices of every stakeholder- the public and private sector, civil society/NGOs, financiers are heard. There needs to be platforms to allow for these stakeholders to work more closely together to ensure resilience plans for the country can be carried out smoothly.
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