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Wednesday, January 14, 2015

5 THINGS THE FLOOD DISASTER TAUGHT US

When the rest of the world was on a holiday mood last December, the nation was hit with one of the worst natural disaster in many years. The monsoon season that visited the East Coast decided to stay longer than usual and though flooding was expected, what transpired went beyond the imagination of even out meteorological experts. 

The heavy rain did not stop for even a breather and as the rivers overspilled, the strong current swept away houses and shop lots, most were built with wood and by hand. The victims, mostly kampung folks in the East Coast and eventually in some Northen area as well, were unprepared. There were those who even refused to be rescued thinking that the flood would subside. Just overnight, the water level rose to an unprecedented level and claimed its first casualty and then the next. Just overnight, the nation went into a panic mode.  

The story on a couple who went missing after they fell off their rescue boat broke the hearts of many and everyone who saw the picture of a school with hundreds of evacuees trapped, almost devoured by the flood in heavy rain was nervous about their safety. More than 200,000 people were displaced in a matter of weeks and the government estimated the total loss and destruction to be RM1 billion. The school term was delayed for two weeks at states affected. Thankfully the flood subside as fast as it came but the tragedy should raise many flags for us to reflect on and learn so that just in case disaster strikes again, we would not be caught off guard again. 

1) WE WERE SO NOT PREPARED

If I can pinpoint the most important lesson for us from the disaster is that we were SO not prepared. Almost everyone in the country knows what a 'monsoon season' is and when it usually comes but reports of villagers refusing to be 'rescued' and cooperate with authorities, people escaping the flood with nothing but the clothes on their back should serve as lessons not worth repeating in the future. Malaysia has been 'lucky' when it comes to natural disasters compared to our neighbours but given the depilating condition of our environment, we should not take anything lightly. The disaster, though might not be as deadly as the rest that hit the region, should be regarded as a warning sign that there is more to come. What happened in December proved that most of us don't know about the basic response to a disaster and our infrastructures were not built to withstand nor protect us from them. 

Take Japan for example. One of the most natural-disaster prone country in the whole world where many of its countrymen died from natural disasters--earthquake, tsunami and volcano eruption. The Kobe earthquake of 1995 that killed 6,400 made Japan reassessed its building and transport regulations and resulted in the development of buildings that were made earthquake proof and civilians who are ready . While every buildings are now equipped with earthquake emergency kits, including dry rations, drinking water, basic medical supplies, hard hats and gloves. The people were also taught basic emergency response and evacuation in case disaster hits. Now imagine if the flood victims were taught basic emergency response--perhaps we could have evaded the deaths and other forms of complications that came because of our own shortcomings. 

2) POLITICS IS EVERYTHING

It's quite a sad reality in Malaysia nowadays that no matter what transpire in the national discussion, politics seems to have an invading power over it. Flood is a serious matter, a matter of national emergency. But most discussions were targeted at politicians and ministers who 'conveniently' were away on their annual leave every end of the year. People were going around and calling out names of ministers and political figures, asking about their participation in the flood relief as if these politicians have superpowers that can lift up sunken houses and make them float (they don't. money is not considered a superpower yet. except batman). At one point I was confuse about the perception that our people have on politicians and ministers...whether we see them as superheroes with capes or whether we are so divided as a nation that everything, even natural disasters, can be manipulated into a fence that we have to choose to side on. 

The politicians, seeing an opportunity, seized it. Some vocal opposition politicians treated the natural disaster as a platform to hold their rivals in the gutter. DAP's Lim Kit Siang was the loudest out of all keyboard warriors in criticising every step of the relief efforts involving the government. While others, maximise every photo-op imaginable; from pictures of them carrying sickly elderly in the blazing storm, lifting heavy supplies and handing them to villages while bracing through the strong tide of muddy flood water and perhaps, the most in-your-face rendition of the episode: a minister piloting a military helicopter used to send the supplies. More than anything, shouldn't this episode make us think twice about holding 'politicians' accountable every time there is a national issue and look beyond to see how we can respond as a nation? The same political circus took place when we lost MH370 and MH17 and one would think that an average Malaysian would feel suffocated by the overbearing noises, fakery and rhetoric by now but it seems that it is not the case. 

3) PERFECT TIMING IS ALSO, IN OUR CASE, EVERYTHING 

As always in the case of modern Malaysia, the cluttering noise of unsophisticated debate has distracted the people from large, significant issues. In this case, perhaps one of the most unforgettable moment was the photo of Prime Minister DS Najib Razak enjoying an afternoon of golf with US president Barack Obama in Hawaii while the nation was hit with one of the worst flood ever recorded.  Related to the previous post, people immediately took the opportunity to question the prime minister's leadership and even to the extent, his political career. The news channels picked up the photo, claimed the PM was reluctant to cancel his vacation despite the disaster. How true is this matter? When the picture came out and people started to accuse him of prioritising his vacation over the nation, I thought to myself whether it was logical for a politician would take a vacation overseas just to spend time with another politician? Or was he on a diplomatic mission to negotiate and discuss matters related to both countries? As it is, our negotiations on TPPA are still in a deadlock with almost no progress. Could they have talked about that while golfing? Who knows. But the prime minister's return and rather swift landing at Kelantan was timely. I can't help but be reminded of how Defense minister DS Hishamuddin Hussein was roped in as the official spokesperson for the MH370 tragedy and the different reactions these two incidents received--showing that timing can either maim or boost one's political career. 

4) THE DOUBLE-EDGED SWORD CALLED THE INTERNET

The internet proved to be pivotal as a platform for civilians to organize relief efforts for the flood victims. Individuals with good intentions come together through Twitter, Facebook and source for donations of money and goods, coordinate the transportation and volunteers that ensure the flood victims receive the help they needed. It was amazing to witness such an outburst of good vibes and positivity among the people in a while after too many overbearing negativity of late. There is still hope for us as a nation. The presence of tragedy not just unite us as a nation but brings out the best of us, the Malaysia that we're proud of as a giving, compassionate society.

And then...

There is something undeniably disturbing with the people's obsession with sharing false information on social media regardless of the consequences of their five seconds-ego boost. The nation went through a trying year in 2014--with a mystery left unsolved, lives lost and millions of ringgit spent to address, compensate and solve the multiple crisis we faced. It seemed like a pretty serious business--even from an outsider point of view. However, the people's inclination to share unverified information, pictures taken out of context and not to mention chain messages that have no regard for the sensitivities and efforts of the people involved with these tragedies prove that we still have much work to do in order to be a mature, thinking society. Honestly, even if we achieve the developed nation status by 2020, the success would not mean anything if a majority of the population still waste time and energy on such trivial matters. 

It is one thing to exercise the freedom of speech on the internet but creating unnecessary anxiety and sensationalism to the point of slander is infantile. People seemed to forget that the freedom to express do not equate to the freedom from repercussion and there should be a sense of responsibility when using the internet to spread information. The five seconds glory of spreading falsehood is meaningless once you're caught.

Increasingly, our society become more individualistic up to the point that even a tragedy is seen as an opportunity for self-presentation. The flock of civilians from other states who drove to the disaster-hit areas in Kelantan, Terengganu just to have photo opportunities and post 'at-the-scene' selfies--otherwise known as 'disaster tourists' is a disease more collective than we would like to admit. Perhaps the same fiery desire to build one's identity and presence in internet that has motivated so many of us to share unverified info online made us feel that it's acceptable to manipulate other's sufferings for own glory.


5) WE NEED A REALITY CHECK

Whether we are ready to admit it or not, disasters are more often than not the results of our own doings and neglect. When it comes to natural disasters, it is easy to pinpoint where the source of the problem is because mother nature is responsive to the changes that take place against it. Just days after the disaster broke out, news channels dedicated their coverage to deforestation and over-logging in the states affected by the flood, especially Kelantan, as if it was kept in the back burner before. Deforestation rate, for the whole of Malaysia, is at its highest level and is the fastest growing in the region. Those are not 'achievements' that we should be proud of and the uncertain weather and creeping water conflict in states like Selangor should raise some flags on how we have been managing our natural resources. The forest is a blessing that people only manage to appreciate once its gone. It's not just a blessing because of the life it contains but also because of the lives it can protect from disasters. The same month that brought us the flood, a mild landslide in Cameron Highland killed a pregnant woman and her one year old son. Just a day after that, another landslide happened at a workers quarters in CH and an Indonesia man was buried in to the ground. The year before, a mud flood killed four people and damaged more than 100 houses after the Ringlet river in CH overflowed. It is predicted that CH will see more landslides and mud floods in the future due to deforestation and  soil erosion. The deforestation rate at CH and Kelantan is not caused by farming alone but also illegal loggers who had been stealing millions-worth of the country's natural resources by taking advantage of corrupt officials and leaders, weak enforcement and regulations and the lack of societal and political will to address the issue. Despite the deaths and infrastructure damage, nothing much has changed in CH despite some efforts by the police to conduct multiple raids  on illegal workers who were taken in as farmers in the area. They could have arrested all of the migrant workers and illegals in CH but unless the authorities actually prosecute those responsible in granting land permits and allowing the soil erosion to happen under their watch, then nothing will change. Same goes with Kelantan and other states, such as Sarawak, who is recording a rather worrying rate of deforestation in the past few years. I hope these tragedies will not just bring the greater understanding of us as a society but also lessons for us to ratify and amend before its too late.