Connexion: Take Action to Build Sponge Neighbourhoods

Come Year 2050, you’re 28 years older and the days are much hotter. Your dry eyes search for water as a desperate bee searches for nectar. Earlier this year we heard news from the Federal Government that the northern states of Perak, Kedah, Perlis and Penang will face acute water supply shortage by 2050.

Perakians view such apocalyptic forecasts as a boring tale of the distant future, as they are more concerned with thunderous floods sending them scurrying up to the rooftops. Herein lies the making of a tragedy: when there is water a-plenty we do not harness it and store it in vast underground tanks. Drains should be conduits conveying floodwaters to storage facilities, but most drains are so clogged with debris that nothing can flow.

A major electrical power outage on July 27 that caused disruptions in Kuala Lumpur, Selangor, Perak, Negeri Sembilan, Pahang, and Penang may foreshadow the coming of bad tidings sweeping in from the rest of the world.

North America in the first half of this year suffered catastrophic raging floods alternating with dangerous heat waves affecting one-third of the population in a series of disasters wrought by climate change. In June, floodwaters broke all record levels measured on the Yellowstone River near the border with Canada. Yet in the same month, daytime shade temperatures hit a life-threatening 44 degrees C in the city of Portland.

Across the Atlantic, devastating forest fires swept through Western Europe last month laying waste to hundreds of kilometres of dried-up land and many cities recorded 42 C. The Spanish town of Candeleda hit a stifling 43.3 C and temperatures in Portugal topped 44 C. More than 1,700 people in Spain and Portugal died from the extreme heat. Britain saw the mercury reaching 40 C last month, the first time ever.

India was an early casualty with temperatures seeing 45-50 C in April and May. Then in June, almost 5 million Indians in the state of Assam were forced to flee their homes because of extremely serious flooding. In Japan, Hatoyama town near Tokyo sweltered at 39.7 C in June. But early this month 500,000 people in three prefectures including Ishikawa just 290 km from Tokyo had to flee torrential rains.

The city of Yanjin in southwest China saw temperatures reaching 44 C last month. Yet a month earlier in June, 200,000 people in southern China had to bolt from massive floods. From Beijing to Nanning the searing heat alternated with devastating floods to wreak havoc. Harsh rains in South Korea a week ago turned the streets of Seoul into rivers, damaging hundreds of buildings and causing eight deaths.

Australia, a frontrunner in climate change effects, provides another good indicator of the visitation frequency of these fire-and-flood twins. January this year saw record temperatures of 50.7 C in the coastal town of Onslow, Western Australia. Yet over the next two months, torrential downpours whipped Queensland and New South Wales inundating towns and cities causing 13 deaths.

Exactly one year ago, newspaper headlines screamed: Scores dead as record-breaking heat wave grips Canada; US heat wave breaks records; July hottest month ever; Heatwaves a harbinger of worse to come?

One comment from a farmer in France deserves attention by Malaysians. “From one day to another, it passed from too much rain to too dry.” Malaysia has had too much rain last year and we may have too much rain again this year. Perhaps even in 2023. But what happens after that? Will it get too hot and dry?

The heatwave is slowly making its way to Malaysia. Last month, Vietnam recorded 36-38 C. The Malaysian Meteorological Department has warned that temperatures may hit 36 C before year end. If we ever hit 39 C, hundreds if not thousands will die because 39 degrees in Malaysia is far more life-threatening that 39 degrees in Japan because of the “wet-bulb” effect linked to Malaysia’s high humidity.

Fire and floods as two sides of the climate change coin. The coin is spinning so that you see floods now and fire next. Now the focus is on the “worst ever” floods to hit Baling district in Kedah, and the traffic-stopping rains in Klang Valley and Johor Bahru. Is any state government storing even a tenth of this free water? No one has planned for the coming of the fire twin.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned in April that less than three years remain to avert a catastrophic temperature rise. However, only the tiny island nations in danger of being submerged by the ocean have made climate change the top item in their agenda. Elsewhere, few political parties other than the greens have shown much commitment towards reversing climate change.

Climate adaptation, the least that needs to be done to save lives, isn’t much of a political concern in Malaysia. You may remember that in March last year, one coalition of parties took out two full-page newspaper advertisements promising to deliver five commitments. The two ads drew the attention of environmentalists for one reason: there was no mention of climate change whatsoever. The word climate did not appear even once.

However, another coalition of parties did have the good sense to mention climate change in the second last paragraph of its full-page advertisement. Its eight pledges included environmental sustainability. Although it was listed last, that is at least a start.

To cope with harsher seasons ahead, seven countries across the globe have turned some of their metropolises into sponge cities by designing structures that act like giant sponges allowing stormwaters to drain away safely into storage tanks.

What can you do? Take action to transform your locality into a sponge neighbourhood that harvests floodwaters for use in dry years. Appeal to the Housing and Local Government Ministry to establish neighbourhood committees through elections of ratepayers without the involvement of any political parties.

These committees must be empowered to sit in the local authority tender board to appoint contractors for the maintenance of drains in their neighbourhoods. They must be authorised to supervise the cleaners and recommend imposition of penalties including termination. Being on-site, ratepayers will be more effective in supervision.

Committees in neighbourhoods that experience massive flooding during heavy rains should press for construction of subsurface drains beneath gardens, roads, and parks as additional conduits. Ensure that all surface drains and subsurface or sub-soil drains (as they are called in the industry) are connected to vast underground tanks, as such tanks are the most economical solution for community water storage.

See that no litterbug gets away with it. Install CCTVs to monitor all the drains so that offenders can be recorded, arrested and charged in court, with penalties that include fines and labour-intensive community service. Act now to save lives and property.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Ipoh Echo

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