By Arveent Kathirtchelvan
A particularly heavy rainstorm on the evening of the 10th of September 2020 left central Kuala Lumpur and parts of Selangor flooded. The shocking scenes of Masjid Jamek being turned into an island surrounded by muddy river and rain water left one wondering where city planning went wrong in the capital of Malaysia.
Whilst many have pointed to a supposed lack in flood prevention systems, we must face the bitter truth that, if even after such ambitious projects such as the SMART tunnel to prevent flash floods we are facing this problem, it is not the systems that are lacking, it is the changing climate of the surrounding environment.
Erratic weather patterns, worsening storms and associated physical and chemical changes in the soil and water are to be expected with the rate of global warming we are seeing today. That and cities built so close to rivers and coastal areas are a recipe for disaster. It is painfully obvious then that unless we change our destructive ways with regards to environmental impacts, the KL floods that we saw would be just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
How then do we move forward? First and foremost, we must realise that building megaprojects to mitigate the circumstances of such events as flash floods is not enough. The root cause must be addressed. Hence, the government must demonstrate enough will and political resolve to tackle climate change.
Malaysia’s electricity grid, for example, is fuelled mostly by coal and natural gas. This shows no indication to change any time soon with the previous Pakatan Harapan and the current Perikatan Nasional governments oblivious to the energy realities of Malaysia. Both have shown mild interest in expanding renewable energy and both have stood against nuclear power. As Liberasi has pointed out multiple times before, any energy grid in Malaysia in current conditions that does not include nuclear power is at most a nominal front of ineffective renewable energy solely existing to bolster the dominance of coal and natural gas.
Being mindful of the material conditions of Malaysia, it is important that we immediately shift to a practical, low-carbon energy mix we can bring to reality in a few decades. This electricity mix should include nuclear power, oil palm biomass burning, waste-to-energy systems and, where possible, solar systems to completely remove or, at least, significantly decrease the dependence on coal and natural gas. Whilst we might like to wait for technology to catch up to our fantasies, there is simply no more time to waste whilst we continue to burn fossil fuels in the interim.
This is made even worse when considering the transportation sector. According to the Malaysia Energy Statistics Handbook 2019, of the total energy consumption by fuel type, 49% were petroleum products compared to 20% for electricity. Moreover, of the total energy consumption by sector, 38% was contributed by transportation. It is clear that a lot of emissions is caused by transport. What is the government’s plan to address this? If we champion electric cars, this still would not effectively solve the problem as the electricity we produce would still come from highly pollutive sources. Moreover, the exotic metals needed to build many personal electric cars would increase environmental destruction as well.
Liberasi’s alternative suggestion to the government is to increase the penetration of cheap, electrified public transportation as opposed to personal cars. This way, we get to approach the problem of transportation from two directions. One, we get to reduce the total number of cars on the road through increasing the competitiveness and likelihood of usage of public transportation. This, of course, necessitates the improvement of first and last mile connectivity (through an expansion of bus routes, for example), not just complete reliance on glamorous projects such as the ECRL and MRT.
Two, we also get to convert petroleum burning vehicles with ones that run on electricity. This would decrease direct emissions from transportation. However, since the push centred on public transportation, the number of electric vehicles would not be as large, thus minimising the per capita mining impacts and lessening the extra electricity demand to support them. If we follow the energy recommendations above, we could be providing clean electricity anyway, thus keeping our carbon footprint small.
Other than progressing in this manner, we must also be more serious in conserving our forested areas. As is well known, sedimentation arising from deforestation makes rivers shallower, leading to a greater prevalence of flash floods. According to the World Wildlife Foundation, in the 20 years from 1983 to 2003, there was a reduction of about 4.9 million hectare of forest cover in Malaysia. This is about 4 times the size of Singapore.
Even now we see prevalent deforestation and unsustainable logging, as in the disappearing forest in Kledang Hill for oil palm plantation or more recently the disappearing Lesung Forest Reserve. All logging in pristine forest areas must be stopped and the amount much wood sources we need for industry should be calculated. That way, a certain percentage of forest land can be used to supply that amount of wood whilst the others remain untouched.
Now, our pristine forest areas are either being destroyed for cash crops or flattened for urban development. However, no amount of exports or high-rise condominiums would be enough to stave off the after effects, especially for vulnerable communities. Take for instance the urban poor and homeless in the centre of KL. How have the flash floods affected them? Are they injured, more prone to illnesses, are some of them even alive?
Perhaps the flash flood of yesterday was too small to mind. Perhaps we need a repeat of the 2014 Kelantan floods in Bukit Bintang for us to do something about it. If we wait, though, it will surely come. And when Port Klang, Pulau Pinang, Melaka and the coastal parts of Selangor are underwater, we will realise perhaps there was a time in the not-too-distant past where we could have done something to avoid it. Let us not be haunted by hindsight, it is time to act now!
Featured image from The Star