Why are we deficient in tackling the perennial floods?

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We spend millions every year on infrastructure projects but what emphasis is given to mitigate this recurrent problem, asks Benedict Lopez.

Planet Earth has seven oceans that cover almost three-fourths of its surface. Wind and other events cause the oceans’ water to sometimes overflow. When this happens, flooding on the shores occurs.

The ocean’s storms force water on coasts to raise the sea level in that area, causing what is known as storm surges, consequently flooding along the coast.

In cold regions, flooding takes place when the snow begins to thaw. And when the snow melts and flows down the mountain sides and into rivers, these waterways may not be able to contain such huge volumes, thus overflowing and causing floods. But we do not have this kind of problem here in Malaysia.

Since the 1960s, Malaysia has faced the perennial problem of floods, and they usually hit the states of Kelantan, Terengganu, Perlis and Kedah. Penang is a relatively new addition to the list.

Penang should have taken cognisance of history as it has been a victim of natural disasters in the past.

The 2004 Boxing Day Indian Ocean tsunami is a stark reminder of the kind of vulnerability the state faces. The 9.3 magnitude earthquake that struck off the coast of Acheh was one of the world’s worst calamities, ravaging the coastlines of 11 countries and claiming the lives of nearly 228,000 people. Apart from claiming 52 lives and displacing hundreds of Penangites from George Town to Batu Ferringhi, the tsunami also inflicted considerable damage to properties, jetties, vehicles and farms.

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Although the damage and destruction Penang suffered was far less than that inflicted on other countries, it exposed the susceptibility of the state to natural disasters. That should have been a wake-up call to the federal and state governments that Penang is not immune from misfortunes. Remedial measures should have been drawn up in the aftermath of the tsunami.

Penang had been hit by a total of 119 flash floods from 2013 to October 2017, with the highest at 30 in 2016. This year alone, there had been 21 incidents as at 15 October 2017.

Perhaps it is time for the state government to examine the reasons for this misfortune. Could it have been the result of the destruction of the environment?

I am not an environmentalist, but could the problem of flooding all over the country be due to the indiscriminate felling of our trees and other forms of greenery? Or the destruction of our physical landscape like our hill slopes, thereby reducing the capacity of natural water-absorbing mechanisms? If this is the case, then immediate measures must be instituted to protect our environment.

Where are our planners, engineers, administrators and environmentalists in putting forward solutions to combat this yearly anguish? If a natural disaster is beyond the control of humanity, then it is comprehensible. But it is not a despair for which which we cannot find a solution.

How are our drainage and irrigation systems throughout the country? We spend millions every year on infrastructure projects but what emphasis is given to mitigate this recurrent problem? Where is the concerted efforts by politicians and non-governmental organisations in tackling the problem of floods?

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We have lofty ambitions of becoming a developed and high-income economy, which is well and good. We are focusing on attracting high-technology investments and developing the services sector; yet we are unable to find solutions to this periodic affliction.

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Benedict Lopez

Benedict Lopez was director of the Malaysian Investment Development Authority in Stockholm and economics counsellor at the Malaysian embassy there in 2010-2014. During the course of his work, he covered all five Nordic countries. An eternal optimist, he believes Malaysia can provide its citizens with the same benefits and privileges found in the Nordic countries – not a far-fetched dream but one that he hopes will be realised in his lifetime.

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