It is a common waking nightmare for many of us in Kuala Lumpur. Flash floods inundate our roads and houses, leaving us high-and-dry as we find ourselves stuck in the middle of an unexpected swamp or forced to leave our homes as they become a high-tide zone in the middle of formerly-dry land. And to make matters worse, it would seem that flash floods are becoming more and more frequent. So what is causing these floods to rise in frequency? And what can we do to mitigate them?
The Capital City Has Seen Its Fair Share Of Floods
Kuala Lumpur’s history with floods is a long one, having experienced such disasters since the 1920s; one of the worst was the January 1971 flood which saw 180,000 people affected and 32 killed. This disaster was what led to the launching of the Kuala Lumpur Flood Mitigation Programme.
Though once considered to be ‘one-every-100-year’ events, it is clear that these floods have become more frequent in recent years. In 2021, the Klang Valley experienced one of the worst floods in recent history on December 17 and 18, after two-day continuous rainfall, followed by (minor) floods on March 7 and April 25, 2022.
Living in KL is not relevant anymore. It floods after rain, I am wasting my life in traffic. Living costs are high. It is causing so much stress that it may turn into burnout. We want a long life. – Syamil Yusri, Twitter user
These floods are a constant problem for everyone, from KL urban-dwellers to government officials, for a number of reasons:
#1: Traffic Problems
As roads become submerged, motorists will find themselves confronting an impassable barrier, or worse, stranded in the middle of an impromptu river. This will in turn lead to massive traffic congestion as entire highways grind to a halt. This could be seen during the flood of December 18, 2021, which saw thousands of motorists trapped on inundated roads.
Another flash flood. And a minister wants to build three new highways but he is not sure if they will solve the traffic issue (in Klang Valley). – Roman Akramovich@SyedAkram, Twitter user
#2: Flooded Homes
Many people, especially those living in the lower-lying areas, will find themselves forced out of their homes as houses become inundated. In especially bad cases, residents end up stranded on the roofs of their own houses as entire neighbourhoods end up underwater. The March 7, 2022 flood saw more than 120,000 people displaced from their homes, with many of them losing precious belongings to the floodwaters, as well as a dozen deaths.
This house had a lot of photos. Historical, valued things from my grandparent’s time were all ruined. – Ms Elizabeth Chong, KL resident
#3: Damaged Infrastructure
The heavy rains and flash floods will lead to disruptions in power and communication lines, whether directly (e.g. short-circuiting from water damage) or indirectly (e.g. trees fallen by heavy rain or flood waters may topple onto power lines). As a side-effect, people who have been stranded in their own homes will be unable to call for help on their phones due to the disruption of phone or internet services. Flooded houses will also need to have much of their electrical infrastructure repaired or replaced due to water damage caused by the flooding.
#4: Damage Costs
Recovering from flood damage is an incredibly expensive endeavour. The floods of mid-December and early January, for example, have caused an estimated RM6.1 billion (S$1.97 billion) in overall losses, according to a government report on Friday (Jan 28th). The Department of Statistics has further stated damage to public assets and infrastructure caused losses of RM2 billion, followed by RM1.6 billion in damage to homes.
Every time it happens, property damage is estimated in the millions and the reason for high rainfall can no longer be used if the Government’s modus operandi remains unchanged. – Segambut MP Hannah Yeoh
#5: Infectious Diseases
Floodwaters are largely filled with all manner of filth and bacteria. As such, ingesting or making skin contact with these contaminated waters is a good way of contracting infectious diseases such as dysentery and cholera.
What’s Causing The Floods?
There are a number of factors responsible for causing the ever-frequent flash floods plaguing our city:
#1: Heavy Rainfall
Malaysia experiences heavy rainfall every year, with the average being recorded between 2000-2500mm. These rain showers become even heavier during the monsoon seasons which usually occur between April-September (Southwest) and October-March (Northeast). The increased rainfall is usually too much for the rivers and existing drainage systems to hold (causing them to burst their banks and overflow) or the ground to absorb (resulting in the rainwater becoming surface run-off).
Malaysia was once covered in trees but has been losing its forests at an alarming rate over the years. Google’s global forest map revealed that Malaysia had the world’s highest deforestation rate at 14.4% between 2000-2012. Though the rates had fallen in recent years, the loss in forest cover still contributes to the worsening floods, according to analysts. Though deforestation can not be pinned down as the primary culprit behind every recent flood, it is known that forests can serve as a buffer to heavy rainfall; a tropical rainforest can intercept about 30% of rainfall in its canopy, with the remaining percentage being absorbed into the soil or taken up by tree roots.
According to Mr Damien Thanam Divean, vice-president of the non-governmental organisation Pertubuhan Pelindung Khazanah Alam Malaysia (PEKA), the clear-cutting of forests to plant crops such as palm oil and durian fruit had reduced the ability of the land to absorb water, worsening the floods.
One of the reasons why it floods so much is because they cut down too many trees or burn down trees to make way for developments and palm oil plantations. – Ms Elizabeth Chong, KL resident
#3: Natural Greens Replaced With An Urban Jungle
Kuala Lumpur has become heavily urbanised over the years. Nearly every part of its surface area is covered in impermeable asphalt or concrete. Because of this, the rainwater will not be absorbed into the soil beneath and remain on the surface. Furthermore, as we continue to develop our city and its infrastructure, we will inevitably remove whatever greenspaces exist within KL, and with it the land’s ability to absorb rainwater.
#4: Climate Change
Regarded as the primary suspect for the heavier rainfalls in recent years, it is feared that a warming climate may lead to longer and more unpredictable monsoon seasons, resulting in more ‘surprise’ flash floods caused by stronger and longer-lasting rainstorms. A study conducted by C40 Cities predicts that if we fail to reverse the current climate trends, KL will be at an even greater risk of devastating floods by 2050.
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. – Mr Salleh Mohd Nor, former president and senior advisor at the Malaysian Nature Society
#5: Clogged Drains
The SMART tunnel was constructed for the purpose of diverting flood water from the Klang River into the Batu and Jinjang retention ponds in Air Panas and Setapak Jaya. However, the tunnel can only perform its duty as long as the city’s drainage and irrigation channels are open and free of blockage. And unfortunately, we Malaysians have a tendency to simply throw our rubbish anywhere we want, and that includes our drains and rivers. Clogged with garbage that disrupts the flow of water, our city drains and the rivers that flow through KL will inevitably overfill and spill out their contents.
Along Jalan Ampang near KLCC, clogged drains resulted in flash floods which lasted for 30 minutes. – Kuala Lumpur Traffic Investigation Enforcement Department (JSPT) chief Assistant Commissioner Sarifudin Mohd Salleh
What Are The Solutions?
This is a disaster every time it rains in Kuala Lumpur and the need to find a solution to the flood problem in Kuala Lumpur is becoming more critical. – Segambut MP Hannah Yeoh
Proper solutions to these floods are required in order to prevent more lives from being lost and reduce the cost incurred from the damages. The problem is that there is a clear lack of proper and effective coordination between the appropriate bodies when it comes to preventing or mitigating the effects of these events, further compounded by a lack of adequate infrastructure and poor maintenance of existing ones.
Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL) has already embarked on a long-term plan to resolve the flash flooding issue with 14 interim measures under the KL Flash Floods Mitigation Action Plan 2022. This plan aims to improve current infrastructures with flood-prevention capabilities such as resurfacing roads and public walkways with water-absorbent Stone Mastic Asphalt (SMA) (thereby allowing rainwater to seep through and be absorbed by the ground underneath) as well as stepping up basic operations including daily cleaning and removal of obstructions like garbage and tree roots from rivers and drains.
Many drains here are as old as DBKL itself and can no longer accommodate the ever-expanding townships and increasing density. Through this study, we hope to find permanent solutions. – KL Mayor Datuk Seri Mahadi Che Ngah
EMIR Research, a think-tank has also highlighted a list of policy initiatives that it plans on recommending to the current administration and DBKL with regard to the flooding issue:
- Planting mini-forests along with the installation of pedestrian walkways or cycling pathways to serve as rainfall buffers in addition to other functions (e.g. carbon dioxide absorption, restoring biodiversity to the city etc.).
- Utilise idle land and abandoned buildings to grow various kinds of food crops, which is made possible by rapid development in agritech such as hydroponic, and indoor and vertical farming. For example, the One Utama Rooftop Farm whereby the owner utilised the rooftop of the shopping mall to integrate agriculture and aquaponics together.
- Increasing car-free zones with more public transport service frequency as well as promoting alternative transport such as walking, cycling and car-pooling will help reduce the carbon footprint in urban areas.
- Reforestation of low-lying, flood-prone areas to regulate water flows, protect against storms and prevent soil erosion and landslides.
- Clearing garbage from drains and rivers on a daily basis. The government could install simple, custom-designed surveillance Internet of Things (IoT) modules at designated spots along the river to keep track of the clearance progress.
- Increasing the carrying capacity of rivers – either widening, deepening or both.
- Constructing swales (shallow, broad and vegetated channels for collecting and treating rainwater run-off) along major highways, roads and housing areas prone to flooding.
- Raising public awareness via campaigns and education programmes
- Developing early warning systems and disaster risk-reduction plans. For instance, MetMalaysia and Nadma could apply a Geographic Information System (GIS) to produce a flood hazard map daily, identifying high flood risk areas.
Government policy is just one step towards resolving KL’s flood problems, however. We, the public, must do our part in taking care of the environment. Even something as simple as properly disposing of our trash will help reduce the risk of flooding and lead to positive behavioural changes that will prevent the clogging of our drains and rivers.
Explore our sources:
- Malaysian Digest. (2016). We Already Have a SMART Tunnel But Why Do Flash Floods Still ‘Out-SMART’ Us? Link.
- A. Yeo (2022) Will Kuala Lumpur become the next flooding city like Jakarta?. Emir Research. Link.
- M. Kaur (2022) Social media users rage over another flash flood in KL. Sinar Daily. Link.
- FMT (2021) Why were the floods so bad? Because we were not prepared. Link.
- Reuters (2022) ‘Surprise’ urban Malaysia floods drive pleas for climate action. The Straits Times. Link.
- S. Aliff (2022) Heavy downpour no longer an excuse, says Segambut MP. The Malaysian Reserve. Link.
- Reuters (2022) Malaysia floods caused nearly $2 billion in losses. The Straits Time. Link.
- Dr M. Shahruddin (2022) With floods come infectious diarrhoeal diseases. The Star. Link.
- MyGov (n.d.) Link.
- Climate Change Knowledge Portal (n.d.) World Bank Group. Link.
- S. Rahman (2022) Malaysia’s Floods of December 2021: Can Future Disasters be Avoided. ISEAS. Link.
- W. Lynn (2021) Biodiversity loss a cause for alarm. Malaysiakini. Link.
- Water Safe Cities (n.d.) C40 Cities. Link.
- R.N.R Rahim (2022) KL hit by flash floods, again. New Straits Times. Link.
- N. Daim & T.Z. Sofia (2022) DBKL embarks on long-term plan to resolve flash floods [NSTTV] New Straits Times. Link.