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The 50-Year Flood Problem

Updated: Feb 15

Kuala Lumpur is living up to its literal translation of “muddy confluence”, again.

Being a tropical country situated on the equator, Malaysia has only two seasons throughout the year: the freakishly hot and humid season, and the monsoon season.

In 1971, heavy monsoon rains flooded several rivers in the nation’s capital, resulting in multiple deaths with hundreds and thousands of Malaysians affected. The then-prime minister declared a state of national disaster in Western Malaysia, resulting in the formation of Kuala Lumpur Flood Mitigation Programme.

Pre-war shophouse residents used ladders to access the upper floor during the 1971 flood. Picture by ALAN TEH LEAM SENG

Fast forward to 50 years later, after various flood mitigation measures and a fancy-sounding tunnel, Kuala Lumpur and six other Malaysian states once again lapsed into a state of flooding said to be the worst since 2014, dealing a huge blow to the recovering post-Covid economy. What’s infuriating was the delayed response from the government and nonchalant official statements despite warnings from the Meteorological Department and in parliament months ago.

Kuala Lumpur history repeating itself year after year throughout 50 years of jurisdiction reflects nothing but incompetence of the ruling government and the irresponsible actions of man. There aren’t enough fingers to pin-point who’s at fault; this crisis is a collective effort between profit-focused developers, corrupt officials and the complaisant community.

An age-old Malay adage encapsulates this well, “harapkan pegar, pegar makan padi” (putting your hopes on the pheasant, but the pheasant eats the paddy), which roughly translates to relying upon someone just for them to do the opposite. There are several* reports on those in places of power letting loggers and developers (legal or illegal) roam free in forest reserves, endangering indigenous land rights and of course, the ecosystem. While there are sufficient laws and policies to ensure sustainable logging and development, the heart of man remains insatiable, hence contributing to the flood problem.

My childhood friends and I used to joke about how the rivers and lakes near the school turn into a muddy shade of teh tarik (“pulled” milk tea) whenever it rains. “Hey, don’t need to go to the mamak, look at the abundance of teh tarik,” we would say, keeping in mind our geography lessons on deforestation and unsustainable development.

Attending a town school in the southernmost state of Malaysia, Johor, we bore witness to the gradual overcrowding of the city’s landscape by unaffordable pigeon-hole-sized condominiums and stripping of unkempt parks for the construction of unnecessary skyscrapers. The land reclamation for the Forest City megaproject did little to benefit the lives of locals and simply made the sea view apartments inaccessible for ordinary citizens. Mangrove lands were slowly eroded over the years to make way for the project, threatening livelihoods of the people in surrounding fishing villages and, of course, the coastal ecosystem. Shoreline erosion contributed to worse floods in the region as the dwindling mangrove population struggled to mitigate the floodwaters.

I still remember floodwaters from the monsoon rain soaking through my white canvas shoes and slowly filling the tiny crevices of the ankle-length socks that I wasn’t supposed to wear because it goes against the school rules. Looking at the rain pelting against the glass box encasing a statue of Mother Mary, I prayed to God to make my parents reach the school sooner so that I can finally take off my drenched shoes and pinafore in the car.

That was my memory of flash floods in secondary school.

On Christmas Day 2021, my friends and I got together to volunteer at our local Gurdwara Sahib near the nation’s capital after church to help out with flood relief efforts. People of all ethnicities and ages gathered at the sizeable area scattered with paper boxes filled with goods to lend a hand on the basis of #RakyatJagaRakyat (the people help the people), a movement trending since the start of the pandemic.

Volunteers pack daily necessities into boxes to be transported to affected areas. Photo by CHANG JING JIE

The Gurdwara Sahib is one of the many NGOs providing aid to the flood victims throughout the country. Malaysians have been taking matters into their own hands prior to government intervention, from donating dry rations to ferrying those stranded on their kayaks, all at their own expense.

The floods aren’t just a natural disaster; they represent the ongoing national crisis. While it is a comforting sight to see Malaysians helping one another in times of peril, the responsibility of providing necessary aid shouldn’t fall entirely on the people’s shoulders when disaster first strikes. This makes me ponder: What if one day people just decide to not care as much? Would the lackadaisical government finally step up to fill the void they created themselves, or would the void grow bigger and bigger until we eventually become an indifferent society pacified by one-off handouts?

*The reports in question, to name a few:

  1. Pahang deforestation threatening indigenous land rights

  2. Sarawakian indigenous people questioning timber sustainability

  3. Illegal logging detected in 16 Kelantan forest reserves

  4. Kedahan forests illegally cleared

  5. Investigation on illegal and uncontrolled logging in Pahang

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