Don’t blame Mother Nature: apathy is the real killer.

By Elena Koshy – December 25, 2022 @ 10:15am

THE thunderous rumble cut through the silence and all hell broke loose at Batang Kali, Selangor.

In the early hours of the morning, a group of campers comprising both adults and children were woken up by loud rumblings that were soon followed by a massive landslide engulfing the campsite. At the time of writing, rescuers are still frantically trying to locate the final victim — an eleven-year-old boy who remains missing. The death toll, as it is, stands at 30 while the entire nation prays for closure for the young boy’s grieving family.

Up north, three sisters die after being electrocuted while wading through floodwaters in Kampung Morak, Kelantan. The state is facing intense flooding this year, with a recorded rainfall of 627mm — the highest since 1967.

As tragic and horrifying as news like these often are, the issue of landslides, flooding, diseases and depleted forests aren’t new to this nation. Climate change may play a role in changing our landscape, but it seems painfully obvious that we haven’t learnt the lessons mother nature has been trying to teach us.

Human intervention is making natural disasters unnaturally harmful, both in causes and effects, and the number of ways our own influence is making things worse, taken together, is sobering.

The stealthiest danger in a world shaken by ongoing calamities might be that calamity becomes ordinary. We learn to get by from day to day, but lose the ability to imagine beyond it.

Floods and landslides aren’t rare events that occur once in a decade. We face the same issues year after year, but lack the will to address and mitigate these perennial issues. We’ve gotten too used to coping.

A steep slope made unstable by rain can give way without warning, creating a destructive torrent of rock and mud. The intense and prolonged rainfall in Malaysia especially during the monsoon season can contribute towards landslide occurrences.

One of the earliest recorded landslides in Cameron Highlands occurred in 1961 at Ringlet, which resulted in 16 fatalities. In October 2018, another landslide in the same highlands at Kampung Tiga, Kuala Terla, resulted in three fatalities.

We can never forget the horrific landslide event that took place in 1993, when the Highland Towers apartment blocks collapsed and claimed the lives of 48 people. In June 1995, another 20 perished in a landslide close to Genting Highlands. A year later, torrential rains caused heavy mudflow to sweep over an Orang Asli village in Perak, killing 44 people.

A 2020 research paper on historical landslide events in the country revealed that since 1961, there has been an upward trend of such occurrences, with an average of 100 cases per year (estimation of reported and unreported ones), and a death toll of more than 600!

Many case studies have highlighted the link between landslides and the mass removal of trees and vegetation. Heavy machinery used in logging has damaged precious topsoil and decreased its ability to absorb water, while logging slash (leftover tree limbs) and debris will block natural drainage basins. The removal of forest vegetation has exposed the delicate root systems that eventually die off, leaving the soil vulnerable to oversaturation.

“I don’t see this as climate change,” asserts Anthony Sebastian bluntly. “I see this as a continuing disregard for the most basic ‘mitigation’ action any country with high rainfall must take very seriously.”

According to Anthony, forests play an important role in reducing landslide risk through various mechanisms. Large trees provide strong root structures that penetrate fragile cracks in the underlying bedrock and help anchor the soil. The forest also creates a canopy of foliage that help dissipate rainfall over large areas. Trees also reduce landslide risk by lowering soil moisture levels through the primary mechanisms of interception, evaporation and transpiration.

These mechanisms, and others, also make trees valuable in land reclamation following landslides. Furthermore, trees help to reduce soil erosion and can form an effective barrier against rock, debris and soil slips, as well as limiting landslide run-out distances.

Anthony, who’s a member of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) international board of directors, continues: “Under canopy cover, rain doesn’t loosen and move soil. Roots additionally hold soils firm. Only when we adapt our development practices, our catchment policies, our forest cover policies and our forest conversion policies, can we bring such disasters to a halt. And halting them isn’t rocket science!”

The National Slope Master Plan by the Public Works Department outlining a comprehensive and effective framework of national policies, strategies and action plans to reduce the risks and losses from landslides has been in existence since 2009, but as recent tragedies would show, we remain clearly unprepared to deal with or even mitigate such disasters.

“Tying climate change to the landslide tragedy requires extensive scientific analysis,” says environmentalist Gurmit Singh, adding: “But what appears to be more worrying is the seeming lack of monitoring of hill slope development and landslide-prone areas.”

La Niña, which occurs during the northeast monsoon, brings higher rainfall than normal weather in Malaysia, causing severe floods in the east coast of the peninsula.

As oceans rise, extreme high tides as well as the torrential rain brought about by the monsoons will be able to reach farther inland, putting tens of millions more people and trillions of dollars in assets worldwide at risk of periodic flooding. The Klang Valley, home to eight million people, is seen as the heart of the nation’s economy. Last year, it was swept by one of the worst floods in recent memory, with several areas, including Shah Alam, Hulu Langat and the city centre, being at least partially submerged.

Floods are a result of both meteorological — rainfall frequency and intensity, storms, temperature — and hydrological factors (groundwater levels, rising sea levels). When combined with anthropogenic factors (environmental change caused by human activities) in urban centres, they are classified as urban floods.

Anthropogenic factors like land-use changes, exploitation of flood plains by construction and similar activities, poor solid waste management and destruction of drainage, complicate the system.

While record-breaking rain and rising sea levels might be to blame for severe floods, poor urban planning and management are the culprits that cause major damage. Governments change, leaders rise and fall, political parties are constantly changing their posture, and public issues and priorities evolve; however, what remains a nuisance is not just the destructive nature of floods, but the loss of lives and infrastructure that follow.

“The intensity of rainfall and the worsening floods are definitely a sign of climate change,” points out Gurmit. “Despite the expected weather forecast year after year, we are still woefully unprepared to deal with the effects of the monsoon.”

Unsustainable development practices have led to expansion of plantations, farms and housing estates that encroach on water catchment areas, hill slopes, forests and river reserves, as well as forest buffer zones, says Andrew Sebastian, naturalist and founder of Ecotourism & Conservation Society Malaysia (ECOMY).

Echoing the same sentiment, naturalist Irshad Mobarak shares: “Regardless if climate change is a natural cyclic event or one that’s caused by human intervention or both, the way we’ve altered the natural world around us, including developing and inhabiting hilly environments, would definitely unleash such disasters. We are occupying areas we never did in the past.”

Land conversion activities, explains Andrew, will alter slope topography, soil properties and vegetation cover, hence accelerating the erosion process. During heavy rainfall, uncovered ground surfaces are directly impacted, accelerating soil detachment and resulting in higher sediment (erosion) transported via overland flow. This sediment deposition in reservoirs and riverbeds often contributes towards flooding.

Up to 2pm on Tuesday, the number of flood victims in five states affected by the northeast monsoon — Kelantan, Terengganu, Johor, Pahang and Perak — has jumped to 67,214. Since the northeast monsoon began last month, the floods have displaced some 92,157 victims throughout 11 states. The authorities have also relocated 25,635 families to temporary evacuation centres.

“The monsoon phenomenon is nothing new to us, so it’s no surprise that every year, activists, conservationists, environmentalists and academicians have been commenting on the floods to this very day,” says Andrew, adding: “It seems that very little has progressed. The question begging to be asked is ‘why?’ So here we stand — once again — on the brink of yet another disastrous monsoon season and this shows the lack of preparedness, political will and action on the part of local authorities, state governments and agencies.”

In towns and cities, flash floods are a growing problem. The concrete jungle can’t soak up rainwater, so when a downpour occurs, water has nowhere to flow except into drains, causing them to overflow and setting off flash floods. With intense rainfalls becoming a new norm, towns and cities with concrete drains have reached choking point and are unable to cope with deluges, unleashing serious floods in areas that have never been seen flooding before. Flash floods are no longer anomalies that occur on rare occasions. They have become the norm and bane of urban dwellers, particularly during the monsoon.

A movement in Canada and the United States called Depave is tearing up concrete and asphalt in local neighbourhoods and replacing them with gardens to soak up rainwater and help prevent flooding. And although Depave is largely unknown in this part of the world, there’s a growing need for similar action here.

The increase in nature-related disasters and tragedies can’t be fully explained by changes in climate or simply by better reporting techniques. Rather, the answers must be found in human vulnerability, apathy, environmental degradation owing to poor land use, illegal logging and over development.

Traditional relief in the form of food, medicine and other emergency measures usually arrives too late, does not meet the most pressing problems and, by reinforcing the existing political and social order, often helps block changes needed to prevent another disaster. “If we do not take meaningful short-term and long-term actions right now, the next season would see us staring down the barrel of yet another disaster,” warns Andrew.

Disasters offer evidence of what humankind is capable of, and that record stretches in many directions — hubris, apathy and shortsightedness; imagination, generosity and courage. The latter when Malaysians join hands to help and support each other in moments of crisis.

Learning to live with constant disasters means more than preparing an emergency kit and practicing where to brace when grounds shake and the waters rise. It means considering how to steer the vast transformations that disaster makes both necessary and possible. It means rebuilding and reimagining at once — acknowledging our wounds and still fashioning new visions not just of who we are, or were, but of who we could be.