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5 Natural Disasters That Hit Malaysia (And How To Better Prepare For It)

Based on a report by Emergency Events Database (EM-DAT) in 2018, Malaysia has experienced 51 natural disasters from 1998 – 2018[1,2]. It may seem like a small number, but the sustained damage it raked up amounted to RM8 billion[1,2]. Beyond the financial loss, natural disasters also result in the loss of precious lives and disrupt the livelihood of the victims. 

Natural disasters are not phenomenal or atypical. We should learn from the past and be better prepared for it. Here are 5 natural disasters that hit Malaysia suddenly, and if ever it happens again, there are things you can do to protect and safeguard your life and assets: 

1: The Deadliest Landslide In Keningau, Sabah In 1996 

What happened: Tropical Storm Greg that swept through East Malaysia, particularly Keningau in Sabah on 26 December 1996 left a sizable mess. The rainwater mixed with soil formed a strong debris flow (including dirt, large rocks and trees) that flowed through villages in Keningau destroying houses, structures and vehicles. 

The loss: The landslide robbed the lives of 302 individuals and the disaster amounted to RM458.9 million in damages[3]

Warning signs: 

  • If you are residing in a home on an elevated area or near a slope, the warning signs that could alert you of slope failure includes cracks in walls, structures (staircase or pillars) moving from their original positions, slanting power lines or trees and doors or windows that get stuck for the first time [3]
  • Signs to observe around your neighbourhood include cracks in the road, cracks widening in the road, unexplained puddles of water that flows out from unusual places and are not formed by rain [3].
  • If you’re on the road, collapsed pavements, mud and fallen rocks are strong indicators of the high possibility of landslides occurring [3].

If it happens, what do you do: 

  • Early prevention is encouraged and any warning signs as per above should be reported to the ​​Slope Engineering Branch (CKC) of the Public Works Department (JKR) at 1-300-888-557 or 03-2610 8888[4].
  • Alert your neighbours who could also be affected and evacuate as soon as possible. If you see a landslide approaching, try to run across its path rather than away from it. It is unlikely that you can outrun it [3]
  • If you are trapped in a high-rise apartment or condominium and running out of time, try to get the highest floor. If that is unlikely, sit under a sturdy piece of furniture and curl up into a ball [3]
  • Once it has run its course, stay away from the slide area as additional slides may strike. Be alert of any strange sounds as trees and boulders may still fall on the affected area [3]

What can you do now:

  • If you are living in high-risk areas, be alert and aware during extended rainfall. Pay attention to the water level of the nearby river or stream [3]
  • Insure your property especially if it is near an embankment or river or at a steep hill [3]

2: Tsunami In 2004

What happened: An undersea earthquake of 9.3 magnitudes off the west coast of Sumatra, Indonesia erupted on occurred 26 December 2004. This, in turn, triggered a tsunami, a series of waves with a large amount of water[5]

The loss: 68 lives lost in Malaysia, Penang was the hardest hit with 52 deaths. Damages amounted to about RM15 million[5]

Source: Wikipedia

Warning signs: 

  • Following the tragedy, the government installed a tsunami alert system
  • Earthquakes and tsunamis come hand in hand. At the occurrence of an earthquake of immense magnitude, it is safer to avoid coastal areas. 

If it happens, what do you do: 

If you are nearby the sea or out at sea:

  • Return to shore immediately, secure the boat and evacuate from the waterfront as soon as possible [5].
  • Do not try to witness the event by going to the coast [5].

If you are on land:

  • Grab essential items such as medication and a powerbank and important documents [5].
  • Seek shelter on higher ground [5].

What can you do now

  • Similar to when we are on a flight, ensure that you are aware of the nearest exits and nearby high grounds to ease your evacuation process if tragedy strikes. 
  • Keep your ears and eyes peeled for any news of strong earthquakes nearby. 

3: Floods That Hit Five States Nationwide In 2007 

What happened: The flood was caused by monsoon rains hitting northern and eastern Malaysia. Five states were affected including Sabah and Sarawak. But the state of Johor was hit the hardest, leaving 16,000 people displaced as a result of the flood[6]

The loss: 2.5 billion in damage was recorded, 17 people were killed[7]

Warning signs: As we have learnt from the recent #daruratbanjir, prolonged torrential rain only spells trouble for many who lives near the riverside, embankment, low-lying areas and neighbourhoods with a poor drainage system.  

If it happens, what do you do:

  • If you are driving during a flood, do not try to “redah” the waters. This particular action would only lead to a more damaging effect. The same thing applies to those who are stranded at home, it is not encouraged to walk out of your home and wander around the flooded areas [8]
  • On the East Coast of Malaysia, monsoon-related flash flooding between November and February is a common occurrence. Ensure that an emergency kit filled with crucial documents, essential items, power bank, torchlight is packed and ready to go during unforeseeable circumstances[8]
  • If the water starts rising, switch off your main power outlet and unplug all of your electrical appliances and try your best to move them to higher ground before evacuating[8]
  • Seek authorities help, get them involved as early as possible. Also, snap some pictures of your house, the car during the incident to be able to proceed with the insurance claim immediately[8]

What can you do now: Sometimes our choice of residence is strategic enough and ticks the boxes. However, it could also potentially place us in a vulnerable state.

  • If you’re living or working close to a river or embankment, set alerts for any new MET Malaysia and Department of Irrigation and Drainage Malaysia (DID) updates.  The MET department provides the latest weather forecast and DID is essential when it comes to predicting the worst case scenario.
  • Get your personal properties (i.e car, house, business, assets) insured against natural disasters. There is no flood-specific coverage for cars, however, it is a good idea to be protected from unforeseeable circumstances[8]

4: Drought And Dry Spells In 2014

Malaysians may be used to hot weather throughout the year. However, the absence of rainfall coupled with hot and dry weather can cause droughts.

What happened: 7% (2 out of 30 million) of the population was affected for two months (mid-January to mid-March 2014)[9]

The loss: No reports of the total loss in money and human lives. However, it affected the inflation rate in 2014 due to water shortages affecting the agriculture sector. Water rationing also affected Selangor and the neighbouring state, Negeri Sembilan[8]

Source: Soya Cincau

Warning signs: Long period of no rainfall. Sometimes drought coincides with El Niño phenomena, an occurrence that happens every 5-10 years. 

If it happens, what do you do: 

  • Stay hydrated, heatstrokes are deadly.
  • Limit your water usage, make every single drop count. Complete your shower within 8 minutes [9].
  • The water droplets from your air-conditioning unit can be collected and used to water your plants [9]

What can you do now : 

  • The MET department should be your best friend when it comes to weather changes in Malaysia. Another informative platform is the infokemarau, they provide warnings on possible droughts. 
  • Also keep an eye on your local water provider for possible water cuts so you can prepare ahead of time when it comes to water shortages.Purchase large pails to store water. 
  • With the heavier rainfall in certain parts of Malaysia, collect rainwater now and reuse it to conserve water better. 

5: The 2015 Sabah earthquake

What happened: Despite Malaysia’s geographical position on the Equator that deems us safe from active seismic activity, the earthquake that hit Sabah in 2015 tells us otherwise. A 5.9 magnitude earthquake that shook Ranau early in the morning of 5 June. Following the incident, 500 aftershocks were recorded, the town was also tormented by rain leading to multiple mudslides carrying the debris and rubble downhill, adding to the damage toll [10].

The loss: The quake was also felt at Mount Kinabalu. The early morning tragedy left 137 climbers stranded, 18 lives were lost. It also damaged ‘Donkey’s Ear’, an iconic peak on Mount Kinabalu. In numbers, it costed the nation RM100 million[10]

One of the major attractions of visiting Sabah is climbing up Mount Kinabalu, the tourism sector was affected by the earthquake both in rebuilding and limiting the number of hikers to 100-120 daily for two months [10]

Warning signs: An earthquake is hard to detect by naked eyes and requires the assistance of seismographs. With Malaysia’s location being considerably out of the risk, earthquakes are particularly out of the norm. 

If it happens, what do you do: 

  • If an earthquake takes place, your first line of defence is to cower under the table. Follow the drop, cover and hold on method, and stay away from windows [12].
  • Earthquakes also come with aftershocks, be sure that there would be no more following earthquakes before coming out of your hiding [11]
  • If you are indoors, do not move outdoors. 
  • If you are outdoors, stay away from buildings and go to open areas. The injury and fatalities from the earthquake are due to the things that the earthquake put into motion. 
  • If you are driving, pull over and park the car. 
  • Use your mobile phone for text messages and limit phone calls strictly for emergencies. 

What can you do now : 

  • In addition to having insurance, it is also beneficial to prepare for things that could protect you and your loved ones such as fire extinguishers and maintaining your first aid kit and cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) certification. 
Source: Friends of Kinabalu Mountain Guides, retrieved from Vulcan Post

Explore our sources:

  1. EMDAT – The International Disaster Database. (2018). Economic Losses, Poverty & Disasters (1998 – 2017). Link
  2. Z.AR. (2018). Climate-related natural disasters cost Malaysia RM8b in last 20 years. Malay Mail. Link
  3. BADD. (2017). Malaysia’s Deadliest Landslide Happened 3 Years After The Highland Towers. Have You Heard Of It? Cilisos. Link 
  4. Jabatan Kerja Raya. (n.d). Monitoring Slopes. Link
  5. D.Khuu. (2019). What to do during a tsunami. Free Malaysia Today. Link
  6. Insurance Journal. (2007). Monsoon Floods Hit Malaysia. Link 
  7. OCHA Regional Office For Asia Pacific (n.d.). Floods Malaysia, December 2006 and January 2007. Link
  8. CompareHero. (2021).How To Survive A Flood And Financially Recover Quickly. Link
  9.  BERNAMA. (2014). Prolonged drought threatens to drive up food prices. Malay Mail. Link 
  10. Federation Of Malaysian Consumers Associations. (2017). Bersedia Menghadapi Musim Kemarau. Link 
  11. BERNAMA. (2015). Sabah earthquake a 2015 shock for the nation. Malay Mail. Link
  12. Ministry Of Foreign Affairs. (2019). Earthquake Preparedness. Link
  13. Malaysian Meteorological Department under the Ministry Of Science, Technology and Innovation. What Should You Do During And After Earthquake. Link 
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