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When Rain Relates To The Poor

In the two decades between 1998 and 2018, Malaysia has experienced 51 weather-related natural disasters[1][2]. In the same time frame, over three million people were affected, and nearly 300 people died as a result of these weather-related disasters[2]. Factoring all the damages and necessary mitigation costs, it put a dent of RM8 billion in the nation’s pocket.  

To this day, floods are Malaysia’s biggest problem…

The northeast monsoon (NEM) season is from November to February annually, while the southwest monsoon (SWM) season occurs from May to August[3]. Meaning eight months out of the year, some parts of Malaysia will receive heavy rainfall and with the incessant rain, some places are bound to flood. 

Pasir Mas in Kelantan inundated by flood water December 29, 2014. Source: Malay Mail

Factor in climate change, the severity of floods in Malaysia have just gotten worse over time. Floods alone have affected over 770, 000 people, and caused roughly RM5.82 billion worth of damages in the same two-decade period[2]. That’s 73% of the RM8 billion in total damages[2].

With every flood that happens annually, money is spent at a national and personal level to fix damages such as property and asset damages, loss of agricultural land and loss of livestock[4]. But, there are losses that money cannot accrue for – that’s the loss of life. 

Source: Straits Times

Flood damages usually cost up to RM100 million a year, with an average of 60 deaths per year since 1996[5].

Whilst this is a huge hit to the national economy, we have to remember that beyond these numbers are the livelihoods of thousands of people. Thousands are losing all or part of their homes and income on an annual basis because they are unable to mitigate weather-related problems. 

Where are the flood-prone regions in Malaysia?

Technically, any place where excessive rainfalls are vulnerable to flooding. However, there are more causes than just rain. A flood usually occurs when rivers overflow or when drainage is poor. Coastal flooding on the other hand occurs when a large storm or tsunami causes the sea to surge inland[5]. Whilst most floods take hours or days to develop, others can happen very quickly, leaving very little time to evacuate. 

Source: Ministry of Environment and Water

The map above indicates (in red) places in Malaysia that are prone to floods. Thankfully Malaysia has been able to complete a map of different zones that are more prone to flooding[6]

The most damage can be seen in coastal areas namely, Kota Bharu, Kuala Terengganu and Kuantan. There are places where floods occur as a result of rivers overflowing such as Melaka, Seremban, Ipoh and Kuching. Within urban areas, floods are possible too because of poor drainage systems and places like Kuala Lumpur and Johor Bharu are affected[6].

Source: New Straits Times

Whilst the severity of the floods varies between different locations, a flood can instantly throw a family into poverty. For example, the 2014 floods affected over half a million people (541, 896 people) with the vast majority coming from Kelantan (319, 156 people)[7]. During this flood, there were 2,076 homes destroyed, 6,698 homes that were damaged, RM2.85 billion worth of property loss and sadly, 25 lives were lost[7]

Here are some of the troubles brought by flooding. 

3 major risks the poor face when floods hit 

#1: Instantly Homeless

The full force of moving water has a destructive power that can take down bridges, trees, cars and even houses. Water can cause so much structural damage to both residential and commercial buildings, taking down anything in its path[8]

Source: Wall Street Journal

In 2018, a total of 12,000 people had to be evacuated from their homes because of flood damages[9]. Tens of thousands needed to be placed in temporary flood relief shelters, praying that the damage to their houses was not going to be too expensive to fix. 

Grounded, single-storey houses are continuously exposed to flood damages[4].  As most of these houses are on the cheaper end of the spectrum, most households do not have the financial freedom to elevate their residences above the ground leaving them at the mercy of recurring flood event[4]

A study conducted in Temerloh and Pekan, Pahang identified that the majority of houses were mostly built according to traditional designs using wood as the main construction material[4]. These houses were more prone to be destroyed or damaged in floods as they could not withstand the force of the floods. Whereas houses in Kuantan were built using concrete, bricks and cement, which were less prone to destruction, however, faced other forms of flood damage[4]

It is usually after floods have resided that the full extent of their damages is seen. Other than the obvious water damage, the floods leave behind mountains of silt and mud in homes[9]. All kinds of hazardous materials and debris such as pesticides, fuel, carcasses and untreated sewage are brought into living spaces and left to rot[9]. The aftermath also leaves many households without electricity or clean drinking water for days. 

Source: Wall Street Journal

The most recent examples are the floods in Beaufort and Tenom, Sabah.  A total of 4,832 people have been evacuated and housed in temporary relief centres[10]. Among the areas affected included the Tenom Pangi Hydro Power Station leaving a total of 10,000 people without an electricity supply[10]. It is also important to remember that floodwater is a good conductor of electricity. Homes that were not completely submerged in floods face another problem – that is electrocution hazards. Electrical appliances that have moisture and come into contact with water poses a huge threat to people’s safety[10]

Flood victims in Pahang mostly did not experience water disruptions. The ones that did, however, have to travel between 12 to 30 minutes to the nearest water source of wells or rivers[4]. Although the supply of clean water is not a problem in Temerloh, Pekan, and Kuantan, these states were under threat of flood-borne diseases or illnesses[4]

#2: Health Risks Brought by Floods

Other than physical injuries caused by the flood water or the debris it carries, floods also bring forward a multitude of diseases. There are food and water-borne diseases such as cholera, typhoid, dysentery, hepatitis and acute gastroenteritis[6]. Acute respiratory diseases such as pneumonia, there are also direct contact infections like measles and bacterial meningitis, tetanus, and of course vector-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue[6]

Source: Business Insider

In 2014,  a study identified that there were 659 cases of dengue during and post the flooding of the Kelantan River Basin[7]. There were also over 800 cases of Leptospirosis, 27 cases of malaria, 13 cases of typhoid and 4 cases of hepatitis[7]

Another study covered those impacted in Pahang. The Temerloh and Pekan districts stated that the average distance to the nearest healthcare facility is between 11 to 17 minutes. Households with lower income and lack of proper transportation faced more difficulty than those in Kuantan, who had easy access to nearby healthcare facilities[4]

#3: Loss of Food Supply

Flood victims are entirely reliant on the supply of food given at evacuation centres. The majority of these foods include dry, packaged, and ready-to-eat-food like biscuits and canned food. Those who stayed back and did not go to evacuation centres are still in need of food supply as their transportation options are limited. During the duration of the flood, they need nutritious food supplies such as rice, vegetables, proteins and oil. However, if the floods are continuous, or have affected road access, this makes food distribution exceedingly difficult. 

Source: Vulcan Post

For those whose livelihood depends on agriculture, floods are their worst enemy.  Annual floods of high or low magnitudes will cause long-term damages to their crops leading to food scarcity and loss of income. Even though these families are not dependent on their crops for food supplies, the loss of income makes it difficult to purchase food supplies. Bearing in mind that their income was not enough, to begin with, these households face difficulty by not having any such supplies or savings to tide them over[5]

All in all, urban or rural, north or south, floods affect a majority of Malaysians. Coastal districts are extremely vulnerable to the aftermath that they bring. The loss and destruction of not only the property of flood victims but also their livelihoods. As this is an annual struggle, there are several organizations in place that provide assistance[5]. However, there is a need for more long term solutions to this problem. How much longer are those with lower incomes left to battle it out with mother nature? 

Explore Our Sources:

  1. IPCC. (n.d). Global Warming of 1.5oC. Link. 
  2. Z. A. R. (2018). Climate-related natural disasters cost Malaysia RM8b in the last 20 years. Malay Mail. Link. 
  3. J. Suhaila, S. M. Deni, W. Z. W. Zin, A. A. Jemain. (2010). Trends in Peninsular Malaysia Rainfall Data During the Southwest Monsoon and Northeast Monsoon Seasons:1975-2004. Link. 
  4. N. D. M. Idris, M. M. Alam, S. Chamhuri. (2021). Community Preparation and Vulnerability Indices for Floods in Pahang State of Malaysia. Link.
  5. CPPS Policy Fact Sheet: Malaysia’s Flood Management. Link
  6. M. A. R. Estrada, E. Koutronas, M. Tahir, N. Mansor. (2017). Hydrological hazard assessment: THE 2014–15 Malaysia floods. Link.
  7. J. H. Hashim. (2015). Malaysian 2014 Floods: Health Impacts and Experiences. Link.
  8. S. F. Zakaria, R. M. Zin, I. Mohamad, S. Balubaid, S. H. Mydin, E. M. Roodienyanto. (2017).The Development of Flood Map in Malaysia. AIP Conference Proceeding. Link 
  9. The Straits Times. (2018). Two dead, nearly 12,000 evacuated in Malaysia floods. Link.
  10. Bernama. (2021). Electricity supply to 10,000 consumers in flooded Beaufort, Tenom disrupted. The Daily Express. Link.
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