By Joachim Ng
No one imagined that Ipoh would be a classroom for a lesson on the exponentially quickening impact of global connectivity. When the World Health Organisation announced on November 24 that a variant of concern that it named Omicron had been discovered in South Africa, only the stock market shuddered. Businesses and universities, anxious to ramp up the pace of activity, shrugged off the news.
But Omicron had quietly flown into Malaysia on November 19, ahead of the announcement, and travelled from Kuala Lumpur International Airport to Ipoh.
There are two parts to this lesson: first, the ripples from events that happen elsewhere in the world are now reaching our shores at a speed that is exponential — doubling and doubling the pace. As of December 11, Omicron has travelled beyond South Africa to 56 other countries. It took less than a month.
Second, there is no firewall that can shield us from global effects. The South African student who carried the Omicron to Ipoh had been fully vaccinated on September 29 before she became a case. There is no complete insulation from world events.
The COVID-19 pandemic is just one link in global connectivity. What else is happening around the world that could boil Ipoh? Global warming. Ipoh has seen a 6.750C increase in temperature since 1998. If you think back to the 1960s, Ipoh would have been at least 70C cooler in those days. Back then, air conditioning wasn’t needed. Today’s worry is the high electricity bill if you run the air conditioner for 18 hours non-stop.
Last month, the World Meteorological Organisation in a state of the climate report said the years 2015 to 2021 were the seven hottest on record, sparking off devastating wildfires in some regions. Other regions suffered massive flooding. July 2021 was the hottest month globally ever recorded, according to the US scientific agency National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
In that month, 134 people died of heat stress in Canada as temperatures surged to as high as 49.50C recorded in Lytton village. More than 60 people died in the US state of Oregon known for mild weather, but this year, temperatures soared above 460C. Turkey saw temperatures hitting 49.10C, the highest ever recorded in the country.
For now, Malaysia is insulated from extreme heat by the cooling effects of the South China Sea, Andaman Sea, the Melaka Straits, and the monsoons. However, the monsoon pattern may change under global climatic pressure and seas are warming up, leading to breakthrough heat events. In the Indian subcontinent, the monsoon is getting wetter with extreme downpours becoming more common.
We have lately been experiencing more flash floods in Malaysia too. One month ago during a heavy downpour, Sungai Pari overflowed its banks and some residents in Taman Suria found themselves in waist-high flood water.
The monsoon may also get hotter, according to a paper in Earth-Science Reviews. Inland cities like Ipoh may heat up faster because they lack coastal winds to cool them. This effect has been recorded in western Sydney 25-50 km inland which is 8-100C hotter than central Sydney which is closer to the ocean.
Fortunately the Perak Government is heat sensitive and has taken measures to plant one million trees by 2030, replacing the trees felled to make way for urban and agricultural development. However, trees need at least 10 years to mature. What can be done to help cool down Ipoh during these 10 years, especially if El Nino sweeps over Malaysia again?
El Nino is a weather pattern that brings less rain and higher temperatures that could reach 400C. As a humid tropical nation, we suffer the combined effect of heat and humidity which is measured on the “wet bulb” temperature scale. We have frequently hit 340C in the shade. If your thermometer ever registers 400C in the shade, you may just as well be in California’s Death Valley at 540C.
Nine months ago, seven areas in Peninsular Malaysia recorded a Level-1 alert with daily maximum temperatures of 350C to 370C for three consecutive days.
If El Nino visits us again these next few years, Ipoh City Hall will have to consider installing mist stations at all crowded walkways to spray cooling mist on pedestrians to prevent heat exhaustion. All school classrooms should have air-conditioners fitted with Hepa-quality filters, and the power to run these air-conditioners should come from rooftop solar panels installed by Tenaga Nasional Berhad.
Where will the money come from to purchase solar panels and air-conditioners for all schools? Persuade the super-tycoons to bring their money back from the Cayman Islands in return for an honorary doctorate in education and a forest named after them.
As cities are concrete heat islands, all vacant stretches in town that measure 100 sq metres or thereabouts should be turned into “Miyawaki forests”, which are patches of forest with at least 20 fast growing maintenance-free plant species to absorb heat. Pocket parks should be created in small idle spots half this size or less. Community farms should sprout up in all suburbs to enhance neighbourliness and green care.
Finally, here’s what you as a resident or corporate body of residents can do if the weatherman announces the coming of El Nino. Plant lots of Araceae (commonly known as money plant) as a vine to hang down the walls of your house or condominium from the roof edge to the ground. This is a hardy low-maintenance plant native to Southeast Asia and it has air purifying qualities that absorb heat.
As the planter box has to be secured tightly to the roof, this can be a new industry for green contractors. Also, make sure your garden has trees—or if you live in a condominium, turn your balcony into a garden. Cool off to survive climate change.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of Ipoh Echo.