The flooding and landslide disasters on 4-5 November 2017 in Penang

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Figure 1: Intellicast wind flow pattern over Southeast Asia for 4 November 2017

Penang Forum deeply empathises with the suffering that many Penangites and Kedahans have had to endure over the unprecedented flash flood and landslide mishaps that happened over the weekend of 4-5 November 2017.

We also greatly appreciate the very prompt and concerted efforts by the state, local and federal governments, the emergency response teams, community groups and NGOs who have so valiantly stepped forward to respond to the crisis and to alleviate the difficulties faced by flood victims.

The weather phenomenon that affected Penang and southern parts of Kedah on 4-5 November 2017 was very unusual. From the ‘Intellicast’ wind pattern map on the afternoon of 4 November, two separate storm systems are clearly visible in South East Asia: one over Vietnam (Typhoon Damrey) and another one in the northern Malacca Straits over Penang (Figure 1 above).

Figure 2: Infrared satellite imagery showing cloud cover over northern peninsular Malaysia for 4 Nov 2017

This second vortex was created by the cold North East wind from the Gulf of Thailand meeting the warmer wind and rain clouds from the Indian Ocean and the Andaman Sea, thereon creating a violent swirling storm system (as shown in Figure 2).

It would seem that the direct cause of the storm and heavy rains experienced on 4-5 November is this vortex over Penang, although the side effects of Typhoon Damrey cannot be ruled out.

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It is important to take cognisance of this unusual phenomenon because it has not been known or reported to have occurred before and may portend more such phenomena to happen in the future, which will bode more difficult times for Penang and its surroundings.

While we may not be able to prevent storms and inclement weather from occurring in the future, we can however work to prevent them from resulting in flash floods and landslide disasters. In this regard, it is crucial that development and land use is carried out with due consideration given to changing weather patterns and Penang’s fragile natural environment.

The chief minister of Penang, in announcing the 2018 budget recently, had stated that the state would take more pro-active measures to prevent landslides, and not just crisis management.

In this spirit, and in view of new risks posed by climate change, we urge the Penang state government:

  • in the short term, to place a moratorium on all development projects that involve hill cutting while carrying out inspection and monitoring on hill slope developments that are currently ongoing to ensure that safety measures are adequate; and
  • in the long term, to broaden the scope of developmental planning so as to take into account the full range of factors—both natural and man-made—that lead to landslides and flash floods.

Penang Forum steering committee
7 November 2017

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