‘Surprise’ urban flooding in Malaysia sparks calls for climate action

A man and his child stand in flood waters in Shah Alam, Selangor state, Malaysia, December 19, 2021. — REUTERS/Rozanna Latiff

KUALA LUMPUR – Damaged furniture and mud-covered walls left behind by floodwaters have now been replaced or cleaned up in Elizabeth Chong’s family home, but lost forever are old photos and documents that gave valuable insight into the life of his ancestors.

On the street in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital, where Chong’s family has lived for nearly a century, residents have faced regular flooding for decades, but nothing has prepared them for the devastation caused by the rising waters at the end of last year.

Ms Chong, who lives in a two-storey house with her disabled aunt and retired mother, was among more than 120,000 people displaced by heavy rains and severe flooding in mid-December and early January in through Malaysia.

“We knew it was raining constantly and expected flooding – but not this bad,” the 22-year-old told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“The doors have opened. The water came in like crazy. All of a sudden it was chest high,” said Ms. Chong, a pharmaceutical company administrator and part-time student.

Disasters in 2021 from extreme weather and natural phenomena such as earthquakes resulted in a global economic loss of $270 billion, according to a March report from the Swiss Re Institute.

Flooding alone accounted for 31% of those losses, he noted.

Like many Southeast Asian countries, Malaysia regularly experiences flooding during its annual monsoon season, but such widespread destruction rarely occurs in wealthier states, including the capital and neighboring Selangor.

The region’s urban areas – which are already struggling to cope with a booming population, rapid urbanization and crumbling infrastructure – now face increased threats from storms, heat waves, floods and forest fires caused by climate change.

Malaysia’s recent floods – some in areas once considered immune to such damage – have caused nearly $1.5 billion in losses and have been described by government officials as a “once in 100 years” weather event. “.

But victims say the country’s response to the floods has often been slow and inadequate, and environmental groups are now calling on the government to introduce laws to reduce climate change-related emissions and bolster emergency response and recovery efforts. ‘adaptation.

“Floods happen every year somewhere, at some time in the country,” said Salleh Mohd Nor, former president and senior adviser of the Malaysian Nature Society.

“To say that this (flood) is one in 100 years is something I doubt…with climate change the rains will be more frequent and torrential,” he added.

The last time deep floodwaters entered Ms Chong’s terraced house – which sits by a river and in the shadow of a huge shopping mall and luxury hotels – was in 2000. One of her earliest memories is of falling into floodwaters as a child.

Renovations to the house over the years have included adding an extra floor, raising the structure 2 feet (0.6 meters), and installing a flood barrier.

Authorities also completed construction of a key drainage and road tunnel in 2007, to guard against flash floods in the capital and help ease traffic congestion.

But after more than three days of near-constant rain in late December, floodwaters rose in about three hours from trickling in Ms Chong’s house to touching the ceiling on the ground floor.

She and her family were forced to seek refuge on the dry upper floor where, in the darkness after the power cut, she began frantically calling emergency services on her mobile phone. Nobody answered.

As trapped neighbors shouted questions and instructions to each other through the windows, Ms Chong phoned her local fire station and was told to call the national government hotline.

A quick Google search showed it only operated from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., she said.

Fire crews eventually used a boat to rescue Ms Chong’s family from the balcony, dropping them onto higher ground – and in the rain – without further assistance, she added.

They temporarily moved in with family who lived elsewhere in the city, and the next day she returned home with her mother to collect some belongings.

“This house had a lot of photos,” Ms. Chong said. “Historical and precious things from my grandparents’ time have all been ruined.”

Malaysia was once entirely covered in trees, but almost half are now gone, according to green group WWF.

The country has lost almost a fifth of its primary forest since 2002, although deforestation rates have declined in recent years, according to the monitoring service Global Forest Watch (GFW).

Analysts say forest loss could contribute to worsening flooding, with many of the hardest-hit states also showing the highest rates of deforestation, according to GFW data.

As news reports showed rivers and areas flooded with timber, opposition politicians called on the state government of Pahang, east of Kuala Lumpur, to control illegal and uncontrolled logging.

Damien Thanam Divean, vice president of the non-governmental organization PEKA Malaysia, said clear-cutting forests to plant crops such as palm oil and durian had reduced the land’s ability to absorb water. water, aggravating flooding.

He called for an amendment to the national constitution to place forest management under federal control, with funds allocated to states to promote conservation efforts.

Malaysia’s environment ministry and prime minister’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Still, it’s hard to prove that deforestation upstream caused a specific flood, said John-Rob Pool, lead implementer of Cities4Forests, run by the World Resources Institute, a U.S.-based think tank. .

During heavy rains, however, forests and fallen vegetation slow runoff, allowing more water to penetrate the ground and reducing the amount that flows downstream.

This means that “forest restoration is an absolute no-regrets strategy”, whether for biodiversity protection or flood risk reduction, Mr Pool said.

Typically, seasonal flooding occurs more along the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia, said Renard Siew, climate change adviser at the Center for Governance and Policy Studies think tank. The December floods therefore came as a shock to many city dwellers.

They “never thought that the time would come when they would have to evacuate their homes for safety reasons,” he said. “It took them by surprise.”

Climate change played a role in the severity of the rains and floods, he said, but other factors also contributed to the damage, from urban sewers clogged with garbage to construction on once green areas.

He urged the Malaysian government to better protect forests and mangroves, plant more urban trees and introduce a climate change law to help ministries and authorities work better together.

“We saw in December that things weren’t as coordinated as they should be,” he said.

Kuala Lumpur resident Ms Chong’s salary barely covers household bills and her flood-affected family has not received any cleanup or financial assistance from the federal government, she said.

But local charities, non-governmental organizations and others stepped in to help, including Ms Chong’s employer who set up a fund to replace damaged items while friends contributed plates, cups and a rice cooker.

The house is now clean, but still needs major repairs to the electricity and toilets – and Ms Chong’s wheelchair-bound aunt is now living in temporary accommodation provided by a non-governmental organization.

Ms Chong blames the loss of trees – and lack of investment in flood prevention infrastructure – for her family’s losses.

“One of the reasons why there are so many floods is that they cut down too many trees or burned trees to make way for developments and oil palm plantations,” she said. declared. — Michael Taylor/Thomson Reuters Foundation

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