KUALA LAUMPUR, Dec 22 — The massive floods in Selangor last weekend showed a failure to anticipate that the west coast could experience a deluge as bad as what was experienced by the east coast of peninsular Malaysia in 2014, despite the weather forecast being available days before the storm, experts have told Malay Mail.
While climate change and sustainable development would have to be looked at in the long term, the academics also pointed out the need for an early and better warning system that could guide the public in terms of reducing their losses and impact from the floods.
Prof Fredolin Tangang, chair of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s Department of Earth Sciences and Environment, noted that the recent massive floods indicated a lack of preparations.
“The big lesson we can learn from this calamity is that massive and widespread floods during the northeast monsoon season can occur on the west coast of peninsular Malaysia, and not just on the east coast,” he told Malay Mail when contacted.
As for why Malaysia was seemingly caught off-guard, he said this was partly due to the mistaken belief that flooding on such a scale would not happen on the west coast.
“I think there was no sufficient warning as well as the assumption that when it comes to massive and widespread flood, it happens only in states on the east coast of peninsular Malaysia. But the fact is massive floods can also occur on the west coast of the peninsula,” he said.
Climate change and extreme weather
Explaining the torrential rain over Selangor, Kuala Lumpur and Negri Sembilan, Fredolin said that this was due to a low-pressure system known as Tropical Depression 29W which first appeared over the South China Sea on December 15 and had hovered over the Strait of Malacca since December 17.
A tropical depression is also known as a system of clouds and thunderstorms with maximum sustained wind speed of 61km per hour. A tropical depression is also weaker than tropical storms that have maximum wind speed of 117km per hour, or typhoons at maximum wind speed of 118km per hour or more.
“In my opinion, events such as this can occur more frequently in decades to come due to climate change. As the climate warms further, there will be more moisture to fuel extreme events like this. Of course, deforestation, unsustainable development, especially in urban areas, will increase our exposure to climate-related hazards, especially floods.
“In Malaysia, we do have a system that is supposed to have the ability to track systems such as this. The authorities need to re-evaluate the early warning system so that we take into account every eventuality,” the academic with expertise in climate change, climate variability and climatology said.
When asked if more of such massive floods may reoccur, he agreed, saying they may happen soon: “Within this current northeast monsoon season, it is still possible for Malaysia to be affected by floods of this scale, particularly the east coast of peninsular Malaysia.”
He noted that Malaysia would not be able to stop global warming on its own, but would need to take steps to reduce the impact from floods.
“We will not be able to control extreme rainfalls that can cause massive floods. As global warming continues, extreme rainfalls are projected to intensify. While Malaysia alone won’t be able to lower the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere to ensure the warming stays below 1.5 Celsius, Malaysia needs to ensure that it reduces its emissions accordingly.
“However, we need to step up our adaptation measures to increase our climate resilience and minimise impacts. We should not increase our exposure to climate related hazards such as floods by carrying out more unsustainable development, deforestation, etc.
“We need more research in assessing the impacts of climate change in the country and ensure research findings get into policy formulation. We must improve our early warning system,” he concluded.
Tropical depression forecasted days ahead, warning systems need improvement
Azizan Abu Samah, a professor at Universiti Malaya’s Institute of Ocean and Earth Sciences’ Air-Ocean-Land Interaction Studies and Climate Change Research Unit, said that both the government and the public in Selangor were “caught off-guard and were not prepared for the flood”.
He said this could be seen by the use of the term “flash flood” to describe the Selangor floods, but pointed out that the scale and intensity of the floods over the weekend were as bad as the 2014 floods in Kelantan.
“That’s why I am very much not happy when you say ‘flash floods’. It is a major flood, just as much as in Kelantan, and it carries all problems of major flooding,” he said.
When asked why Malaysia was caught by surprise, he said politicians and media attention were focused on the Sarawak state elections that concluded on December 18, even though the low system or tropical depression was already developing on December 16 off the shores of peninsular Malaysia.
“The forecast of this system was staring them in the face at least from 17th onwards,” he said, noting that this may be the third or fourth time that Malaysia was affected by a tropical depression.
He said the tropical depression that led to the weekend’s floods was better forecasted as it developed over a few days compared to the previous tropical depression which developed in less than a day and hit Penang in 2017, and that preparations could have been made but the warning system was found lacking.
“Certainly. Both the authorities and the public were caught unaware, unlike our cousins on the east coast who are more used to flooding every year during the northeast monsoon,” he said when asked if it was a case of the weather warning system failing.
Noting that floods happen annually in the east coast states of peninsular Malaysia, with only the intensity and extensiveness varying, he said those to the south such as Johor and Selangor are hit by floods at a less frequent rate.
“However, heavy rain and flooding are not uncommon. That is why we built the SMART Tunnel in KL,” he said, noting that the tunnel’s ability to divert flood waters is a good indicator that Kuala Lumpur is flood-prone.
“KL has flooded, either flash floods and some minor floods and some bad ones like in 1971, and 1980s and 1990s. So what is new? After all, KL has been a flood area since the time of Gullick,” he said.
“Basically, for this particular flood, as I said, the public and government were caught with their pants down. The responsible government agencies such as Nadma (National Disaster Management Agency) and MKN (National Security Council) did not prepare even though on the 16th, the tropical depression was brewing offshore,” he said.
“We should have been more prepared, it was forecasted and I would expect the Malaysian Meteorological Department would shout much louder so the policymakers and lawmakers know how bad the situation is and the public can be warned properly. Maybe they didn’t,” he said, suggesting that the meteorological agency “did not cry loud enough to get both the federal agencies and state and local authorities to come to office” during the weekend “to face the major flooding that is developing and unfolding in front of their very eyes”.
Learning from the Hong Kong model?
Pointing out that it is easier to forecast rain due to tropical depressions compared to flash floods from regular thunderstorms, he stressed the importance of staying alert and being aware, and for the public to be warned in advance and told how to prepare for floods.
“We have the SOP for floods that we apply successfully in the east coast states, Kedah and Perlis. It is just that for highly urbanised Selangor and Penang, the damage and cost of major flooding is higher so we should have a better warning system like in Hong Kong or Manila,” he said.
Referring to Hong Kong’s Rainstorm Warning System as an example that came with action plans that the public is obliged to follow, he said: “In Hong Kong, the moment the rain system is category black, all offices are shut, you are not allowed to go outside on the road, those who are at home stay home, those who are at office stay at office.”
Hong Kong’s warning system has three categories namely amber, red and black signals, with the black signal being for situations where “very heavy rain” exceeding 70mm in an hour has fallen or is expected to fall and is likely to continue.
Malaysia’s meteorological services also have a colour-coded warning system for heavy rainfall with yellow and orange being less severe, and with red being the most serious and indicating that continuous heavy rain with more than 240mm in a day is expected.
The Meteorological Department said that the rainfall on December 18 in Kuala Lumpur had exceeded its average monthly rainfall, with certain places in Kuala Lumpur recording up to 273mm or 363mm in rainfall for that day.
Malay Mail’s checks of the Malaysian Meteorological Department’s Facebook page showed that a low-pressure weather system (which was not named as a tropical depression then) had been forecasted on December 14 to be moving to the east coast states of Kelantan, Terengganu and Pahang on December 15 and expected to move past the northern states on December 17 with possible flooding in these states.
Checks of the Facebook page also showed the yellow warning being triggered on December 14 and December 15 in the east coast and northern states of peninsular Malaysia, before progressing to orange and red for the east coast on December 16 and 17.
The yellow warning was triggered for parts of Selangor by December 17 afternoon, and for the entire Klang Valley by 10.45pm on December 17 and with the same alert also issued up to December 18 noon, and a red alert was issued at 2pm on December 18 for Kuala Lumpur and virtually the entire Selangor and with the red alert for such areas sustained in new updates issued on December 18 (5pm, 10.30pm) and on December 19 (1.40am).
When asked if the massive floods that struck multiple states over the weekend were due to factors such as climate change or unsustainable development, he said it could be an indirect factor where tropical depressions can develop more easily when the sea is warmer, but said this may also not necessarily be the case and indicated that it would be difficult to pinpoint climate change as the direct cause.
“Could be, but it will be very indirect that I would not dare link it to the tropical depression that developed over the peninsula as due to global warming or deforestation,” he said, pointing out that the tropical depression developed over the South China Sea instead of over land.
He noted that building on the flood plains (or flat land along rivers) of Hulu Langat, Klang, and Kuala Lumpur would naturally mean that it is an area prone to flooding when it rains a lot, with floods a natural process that happens when the river bursts its banks and the water spills over to the flood plains.
He said overdevelopment may also worsen the damage from floods, pointing out that the floodwaters would rise faster as there will be more run-off or draining of rain — which could usually drain through to the soil or be absorbed by the trees — against concrete into the river.
“So the river rises much faster. If the floodwater goes very high, there will be more velocity, it can do more damage. The water flows faster when the depth is high so in a way, concrete jungles do contribute to faster water and higher water depth, which contributes to more damages,” he said.
Mohd Sayuti Hassan, an associate professor at Universiti Sains Malaysia’s Centre for Global Sustainability Studies, said that the authorities have unfortunately “not learned the lesson” from the past and this is why floods continue to happen.
“The floods are reflective of the massive floods of 2014, which resulted in the evacuation of thousands of people, the closure of roads, property damage, and the loss of millions of ringgits. At that time, Kelantan was one of the worst-affected states, with water rising to the height of the electric pole,” he told Malay Mail.
Sayuti said human actions are among the key factors why floods continue to occur.
“Unsustainable development — such as deforestation and illegal logging, uncontrolled development, dumping of garbage into drains and ditches, lack of waste management, carbon dioxide emissions, rivers are not managed properly, ineffective flood mitigation — all these activities will contribute to ‘Climate Change’ and, as a result, floods are unavoidable,” he said.
He added that this will be a recurring issue in the future as long as sustainable development is not made a priority and a key performance indicator (KPI) for each agency, ministry, government-linked companies, the government and the private sector.
Despite the much-talked about 17 United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which the world aspires to achieve by 2030, he said the implementation is still unsatisfactory and with humans’ short-term profit attitude also hampering sustainable development.
Sayuti stressed the need to “go back to basics” by making sustainable development a priority in order to tackle floods.
“To do this, the authorities are urged to reexamine the drainage system, especially in city
areas, and make them more systematic. River-deepening projects should also be reexamined as the water reservoir in the Klang River has already exceeded the threshold which has caused a major water overflow and affected the surrounding population.
“The authorities also need to address logging activities where exploration in riverside areas has caused soil erosion and collapse into rivers. The same situation also occurs when vigorous logging activities are carried out on hill slopes,” he said.
He said community awareness programmes such as the “Love Our Rivers” campaign are needed to address the dumping of household waste and industrial waste that also lead to floods.
He also stressed the importance of reducing carbon dioxide emissions — as its release into the atmosphere acts as a greenhouse gas that traps the sun’s heat, which then contributes to global warming.
“When global warming occurs continuously, the melting of ice in the Arctic region will continue to occur. This will consequently increase the sea water level, which will affect many cities located in coastal areas.
“So, the question is: if the sea level continues to rise, where else should the rainwater flow then?” he said when pointing to the imminent flooding in such a scenario.