Floods and climate change: do Malaysia rise or fall?

Evelyn Teh (Committee of Jaringan Ekologi Dan Iklim (JEDI), urban and environmental policy researcher)

The Friday of December 17, 2021 will be remembered as the fateful day when the average amount of rain for a month fell all at once in slightly over 24 hours. Before Malaysians could realise what was happening, extensive flash floods had swept across eight states in Peninsular Malaysia. The water levels rose quickly, even at places where it historically did not flood at such a scale. Assistance from disaster relief officials was severely tested that day and was found wanting. Some families had nowhere to escape and spent a night on their rooftops. In its wake, the flood claimed the highest number of lives lost in the history of floods in the country. More than 125,000 people were displaced from their homes (Buddist Tzu Chi Foundation, 2022). The flash flood incident, which occurred again in early January, resulted in overall losses of RM6.1 billion – an equivalent of 0.4% of Malaysia’s GDP (Bedi, 2022). Triggered by the heavy downpour, as many as 121 landslides were reported in several areas – forcing more people to relocate out of the danger zones (Bernama, 2021). Six months later, fifty flood victims from a badly affected neighbourhood, Taman Sri Muda, filed a suit against the National Disaster Management Agency (Nadma), Putrajaya and eight others seeking RM3.7 million in damages for the devastating floods that hit their neighbourhood (Palani, 2022).

The devastating chain of events has caused many to search for a reason behind why this happened. Based on the explanation by the secretary-general of the Ministry of Environment and Water, the rainfall was something beyond expectations and is projected to only occur once in every 100 years (Hassan, 2021). Does this mean that we don’t have to worry about another flash flood of this scale for the next 100 years? The answer is no, and the reason is because of climate change.

The scientific correlation between increased average global temperature and increased rainfall is undisputed. Surprisingly, there was little to no mention of climate change across most of the news coverage that reported the December flood events at that time. It was only a few weeks or months after the incident that climate change was brought up when civil societies and experts in climate change provided their take on this matter (Thomson Reuters Foundation, 2022), (Dermawan, 2021). Only in June 2022, when the Ministry of Environment and Water announce that climate change adaptation will be integrated into flood management systems (Jaafar, 2022).

Against our will, the climate crisis is upon us. The IPCC Sixth Assessment Report (Masson-Delmotte, 2021) released on August 9, 2021, revealed very sobering findings about the state of climate change today. At the outset, if the global temperature exceeds the limit of 1.5°C or 2°C in the coming decades, the intensity and frequency of extreme weather events, such as heavy rainfall and floods, will increase. Also stated in the IPCC report, for every increase of 1°C of global warming, the world will experience a 7% increase in extreme weather occurrences, especially in Southeast Asia.

The grave warning in the IPCC report indicates that the window to stay within a safe global temperature limit is closing with each passing day (IPCC, 2022). Albeit this unsettling reality, the Malaysian authorities are largely nonchalant when it comes to treating the impending climate impacts as the crisis that it is. Such attitude toward climate change is demonstrated through the way the country continues to pursue development trajectories that are carbon-intensive without a concrete strategy to wind down our reliance on fossil fuel and other forms of extractive industries (e.g., mining, deforestation and carbon-intensive construction projects).

It should not come as a surprise that the same human activities which have constantly altered the natural surface of the earth through deforestation, intensified land-use change, and the widespread concretisation of urban areas are making the floods worse. To varying extents, all these developments have led to less permeable surfaces, thus increasing the rate of surface runoff during heavy rainfall. To make things worse, drainage networks are often clogged with solid wastes and rivers are poorly realigned or blocked due to development which reduces the effectiveness of floodwater drainage.

Instead of cutting emissions at the source of pollution, many false solutions are being promoted – such as carbon markets which are not well-regulated and susceptible to fraud, and carbon capture and geoengineering techno-fixes, which are unproven, unsafe and unrealistic (Nansen, 2020). These false solutions are dangerous distractions that further delay us from taking real climate action.

In response to the increasing threats of climate impact, a loose coalition of civil society organisations and individuals, known as Gabungan Darurat Iklim Malaysia (GDIM), was formed in 2021. It was driven by the need to address Malaysia’s response to the global climate emergency through urgent and concerted action. As a coalition, GDIM aims to advocate for the Malaysian government and all sectors to acknowledge the climate crisis and declare a climate emergency to keep global warming to well below 2°C with efforts to contain it within 1.5°C. In April 2022, the coalition submitted a letter to the Prime Minister, Ismail Sabri Yaakob, with twelve demands for climate action, among which includes declaring climate emergency in the country (Nagotra, 2022). It was the first of such demands to be submitted to the Prime Minister of Malaysia after the country ratified the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1994.

Malaysia became a party (member) to the Paris Agreement, with a climate commitment that includes reducing GHG intensity by 45% per unit GDP by 2030, compared with 2005 levels. Climate adaptation is also a key component of that commitment. In addition, Malaysia has adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) – both emphasising that environmental sustainability must be central to Malaysia’s development paradigm. Malaysia is obligated to uphold the multilateral treaties that it has signed, and more than before, there are an increasing number of CSOs in Malaysia today that are demanding accountability from the government to fulfil those commitments.

The country must immediately implement measures to build back better from the pandemic while putting on the climate lens, be it in climate mitigation or adaptation. The Malaysian government must acknowledge and declare a national climate emergency and treat it as such at all policy, governance, and institutional levels across agencies. Actions to be taken must move beyond policies and guidelines and materialise them into enforceable laws and regulations that mandate a well-planned and just energy transition to renewables, facilitate low-carbon development and transportation, ban further deforestation, and ensure food, and water security, just to name a few. There is a need to ramp up national budget allocations for effective implementations and enforcement of climate-related actions. This must be done in an inclusive manner with true multi-stakeholder participation and representation, especially with the indigenous and vulnerable communities. In addition, a holistic approach toward public awareness should include environmental education as a component in the school curriculum and increase coverage of climate change issues by mainstream media outlets. Mitigating and adapting to climate change requires the whole-of-nation approach. But foremost, it requires strong and sustained political will as climate change will invariably shape our future. It is up to us to make sure that it shapes us to be better, not worse.

Bedi, R. S. (2022, January 28). Malaysia massive floods result in RM6.1 billion losses, Selangor worst hit. Retrieved from Channel News Asia

Bernama. (2021, December 29). Nadma: 121 landslides recorded in Malaysia during north-east monsoon 2021/2022. Retrieved from Malay Mail

Buddist Tzu Chi Foundation. (2022, January 12). Malaysia Flash Floods Activities from December 24, 2021 to January 2, 2022. Retrieved from Relief Web

Dermawan, A. (2021, December 20). SAM: Learn the lessons from unexpected weather. Retrieved from New Straits Times: https://www.nst.com.my/news/nation/2021/12/756371/sam-learn-lessons-unexpected-weather
Green Shock Doctrine. (2013, December). False Solutions to Climate Change. Retrieved from Global Justice Ecology Project

Hassan, H. (2021, December 20). Peninsular Malaysia hit by ‘1-in-100-year’ rainfall, govt says amid severe flooding. Retrieved from The Straits Times

IPCC. (2022). Climate Change 2022: Mitigation of Climate Change. New York: IPCC. Retrieved from IPCC Sixth Assesment Report – Mitigation of Climate Change.

Jaafar, F. (2022, July 18). KASA to integrate climate change adaptation in flood management. Retrieved from The Malaysian Reserve

Masson-Delmotte, V. P. (2021). Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. New York: Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA.

Nagotra, R. (2022, April 20). NGOs call for climate emergency declaration by September. Retrieved from Malaysia Kini

Nansen, K. (2020, January 6). False climate solutions are benefitting no one. Retrieved from The New Economy

Palani, T. (2022, June 27). 50 Taman Sri Muda flood victims sue Nadma, Putrajaya, eight others for RM3.7 mil. Retrieved from The Edge Markets

Thomson Reuters Foundation. (2022, May 2). ‘Surprise’ urban Malaysia floods drive pleas for climate action. Retrieved from New Straits Times

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