Climate change and poverty are uncomfortably linked; as climate change worsens, those living in poverty will take most of the brunt. We look at four ways climate change impacts the urban and rural B40 (bottom 40% of households) communities in Malaysia.
#1: Losses From Incessant Rain And Floods
Flooding has been a recurring problem in Malaysia contributing more damage to the country than other disasters, and the increasing frequency of these events in recent years has highlighted the reality of climate change’s devastating effects.
Climate change brings about extreme changes in weather patterns, in temperature and rainfall… The flood has been termed a once in a hundred years event. But perhaps, more such incidents will be recurring over the coming years. – Associate Professor Haliza Abdul Rahman, Universiti Putra Malaysia
Although such floods typically coincide with the monsoon season between November and March, the warming climate has led to increasingly erratic and unpredictable weather patterns, creating longer monsoon seasons with heavier rainfall and thus more frequent flooding. And where the Malaysian East coast had normally borne the brunt of these floods, the most recent ones had wreaked havoc on the Klang Valley and elsewhere. One example in recent memory is the December 2021 floods, where more than 21,000 people – most of whom were in Selangor – were displaced from their homes.
I am relieved that we are all safe, but I can’t think of what lies ahead for us when we get home. Everything is lost. – Mr Azwadi Awang, Shah Alam resident and flood survivor
B40 communities are especially vulnerable, losing their homes, belongings and businesses. And recovering from such losses will take months or even years, as small business owners will find themselves struggling with the heavy costs of renovating damaged stores and recovering lost wares. This issue is further complicated by the spread of diseases such as dysentery and cholera, debilitating low-income workers and business owners and affecting their productivity and ability to rebuild.
It took more than 20 years to build up the business, but within a few hours, everything was gone. It will take time to recover. – Tommy Ng, store-owner in Taman Sri Muda whose business was affected by the December 2021 floods
#2: Dry Spell From Droughts
The monsoon season is not just heavy rains; there is also the dreaded drought, an extended heat wave that challenges everyone’s thirst. Indeed, Malaysia is currently in the midst of an extremely hot period, with experts saying that these hot spells will last until mid-September 2022. And as long as climate change patterns continue the way they are, these heatwaves will only worsen.
B40 communities will be badly affected by an increasingly hotter climate, especially those in urban centres such as Kuala Lumpur where the Urban Heat Island (UHI) effect will amplify these hot conditions. Indeed, Kuala Lumpur’s most recent UHI reading is in between the 4-6°C range, typically peaking at night.
These droughts will not only dry up water supplies but also increase salinization and turbidity causing water shortages, which are especially damaging for B40 communities struggling with a lack of clean, piped water. This, combined with the inability to afford air-conditioning and the fact that low-income workers often work outdoors, will lead to heat-related health problems such as heat-stroke and dehydration, and thus, negatively affect labour productivity.
For those who often work outside, be careful if the weather is too hot. The risks from a high temperature or heatwave include dehydration, heat cramps, heat exhaustion and heat stroke which can worsen a person’s health condition. – Muhammad Helmi Abdullah, Director-general of the Malaysian Meteorological Department (MetMalaysia)
#3: Threats To Food Security
Food security is more than just ensuring there is enough food for people to eat, it is also about affordability, accessibility, availability, nutritional quality and reliability of food supply lines. Malaysia is already quite vulnerable to food insecurity in the future as it is largely reliant on food imports with much of its agriculture being dedicated to cash crops.
Extreme weather patterns will only add more to the problem, as production (both locally and internationally) is adversely affected and B40 communities find themselves short on reliable and easily available food supplies.
Rural communities depend upon crop farming as their primary food source. This, unfortunately, leaves them at the mercy of droughts and floods, especially since the poorer farmers struggle to afford local water storage, irrigation infrastructure, flood defences and other technologies for adaptation.
According to World Bank models, the occurrence of droughts and floods early in the rice growing season will lead to reduced yields by up to 60%. This was seen during the 2014 Kelantan drought which impacted more than 8,000 paddy farmers and resulted in RM97 million (USD$22 million) worth of crop losses. These crop losses will in turn affect food prices, making things too expensive for the B40 to afford. Last year, the prices of vegetables had risen between 30-40% with one of the contributing factors being a heavier-than-usual monsoon season.
The heavy rains simply make it unsuitable for vegetables to grow. The fertilisers are washed away and the roots are exposed, the extra moisture makes them susceptible to rot, and they do not get enough sunshine to grow. – Chay Ee Mong, Cameron Highlands Vegetable Growers Association secretary
Without access to more nutritious foods, B40 communities will start relying on cheaper and more easily available but less healthy foodstuffs. This will create a food desert (an area with limited access to healthy and nutritious food) and potentially lead to malnutrition or even famine.
#4: The Widening Gap Of Inequality
All of the issues above will only serve to exacerbate the already wide margin between rich and poor, keeping the B40 communities well within the poverty line.
I can’t imagine their struggles. The B40 (bottom 40% of households) and M40 (middle 40% of households) were already struggling before the floods hit them. – Associate Professor Saidatulakmal Mohd, Universiti Sains Malaysia’s School of Social Sciences
Rural farmers also depend upon crops for their income, thus when droughts, floods, heavy rain or diseases kill those crops, they will also deprive farmers of their income. And without a steady food supply and income, these farmers will struggle to support themselves, their families and their businesses.
Both hardy and leafy vegetables are limited. The continuous raid and flood seriously affects the crop. Even if there are no floods, too much rain causes the crops to die. – – Bernard Teh, manager of Yong Kah vegetable farm in Simpang Renggam, Johor
This, combined with other adverse climate effects such as flood displacement and heat-related health problems, may trigger involuntary migrations to urban centres, adding more to the problems of the urban poor and further widening the poverty divide.
Children in such communities will be especially vulnerable. In addition to health-related problems, extreme weather patterns will also prevent these children from attending school, such as in Pos Kuala Mu where most parents only have motorcycles, making travelling to school during heavy rains dangerous. Hotter temperatures will also adversely affect a child’s ability to learn, as seen in Pulau Gaya where teachers reported that students were noticeably less attentive during hot weather due to increased levels of discomfort. These combined will only widen the existing educational disparities between rich and poor children.
Individual livelihoods have been affected by changes in agricultural productivity, impacts on human health and food security, destruction of homes and infrastructure, and loss of property and income, with adverse effects on gender and social equity. – Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report
Explore our sources:
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- V. Tan (2021). Price hike of vegetables in Malaysia due to weather, labour shortage and production costs, say farmers. Channel News Asia. Link.
- H. Hassan (2022).Food supply hit ahead of CNY, Ramadan after floods wipe out Malaysian farms. The Straits Times. Link.
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- Reuters (2022). World poverty to rise as climate change hits food supplies, warns UN. FMT. Link.