Drought and floods: the connection? April 24, 2016, Sunday Mary Margaret
Photo shows an aerial view of the recent flood.
KUCHING was wet; very wet. The incessant rain on the night of Feb 26 and morning of Feb 27 resulted in floods that brought many parts of unsuspecting Kuching to a halt.
Floods flooded social media sites. Sarawak General Hospital patients and staff waded through mid-calf deep water. Cars were partially submerged along some roads, which had literally become rivers. Coffee shop patrons sat with water around them while having their morning cups of tea or coffee. Despite the potential dangers and initial panic, Kuching residents did not loose their sense of humour as a mermaid even floated down the flooded streets.
Numerous government agencies sprung into action issuing notices on roads inundated, establishing evacuation centres and ensuring safety. For the security and the humour, we say thank you.
Kuching is in the wet tropics, so heavy rain and the associated flooding is almost normal, but extreme flooding was not. The Borneo Post reported on Feb 29 that 300 millimetres of rain fell over a short period of time. This combined with high tide left many parts of Kuching underwater.
Kuching is not alone. Floods have hit several countries, including the United States, China, India, the United Kingdom, and Germany, as well as many in Africa. They generally lead to economic loss as, for example, roads and infrastructure in general need to be repaired, business and production have few clients and individual salaries may be cut.
The Padawan Municipal Council (MPP) indicated on March 1 in the report ‘MPP assessing flood damage, appeals for patience’ that the bill to repair roads, drains, clear up landslides was between RM20 million and RM30 million. Individuals whose homes were flooded also experience personal losses since damaged electrical appliances and furniture may need to be replaced. Victims, in addition to economic ramifications, may experience stress and emotional turmoil.
Concerns about and the hope for action to prevent floods were expressed in The Borneo Post and other newspapers, as well as online news portals. MPP echoed the feeling that planning has to be re-examined and that they are not able to solve the floods without working with other agencies.
Possible preventative actions, which include the identification of long-term solutions and development of infrastructure to minimise flooding, were reported in The Borneo Post on Feb 28-29. On March 1, Works Minister Datuk Seri Fadillah Yusof requested developers to plan for future extreme weather patterns when developing projects.
Drainage was cited by many as the culprit, but Fadillah suggested that Kuching, Serian and Samarahan were hit by floods because of the quick pace of development that has taken place. The lands that used to serve as storage areas of water are no longer there.
Ironically, while Kuching was flooded, Miri and most other parts of Malaysia were on extreme alert for fires. This means that fine fuels, such as twigs and grass, are so dry that they can be easily ignited by even, for example, a dropped lighted cigarette or match. A front page article in a national newspaper on Feb 29 also commented that Kuching, unlike most of the country, was extremely wet.
However, as the month of March marched on, the daytime temperatures began to rise. Kuching, unlike other cities, has been spared droughts (so far) and extreme highs. However, schools in Kedah and Perlis were ordered closed due to the extreme heat of 39 degrees Celsius for three consecutive days. Unfortunately as the heat returns, so generally does the haze. In September 2015, schools in four states were closed because air quality reached unhealthy levels.
These reports highlight two extreme water situations — too much and not enough. Could the solutions be connected?
Environmental science degree holder Rebecca D’Cruz, who has been involved in wetland management for 25 years, gave a talk entitled ‘Wetlands: Our First Line of Defence’ in February. She discussed ways in which natural features, such as wetlands, can be incorporated into water management plans that include excessive and insufficient water.
Wetlands, according to the Ramsar Convention, are any lands that are wet, including rivers, streams, lakes, swamps, coastal areas, and paddy fields as well as coastal areas and underground aquifers; but the definition varies according to locality. In 1971, 168 countries signed the convention and committed themselves to using wetlands wisely.
Senior citizens wade through the recent flood.
D’Cruz said managing for floods and droughts involve the entire watershed, including land use, wetlands, forests, agriculture, and housing areas. Land use, whether natural or man-made, in the upper reaches of watershed affects the downriver areas. She noted that flood control measures such as barriers and dams are expensive to build and maintain, whereas the use of existing wetlands would be more cost efficient and increase in effectiveness over time.
Conservation worker Cynthia Chin said the economic benefits of keeping wetlands to absorb the rains should be readily and immediately measurable on an economic basis. In addition, water would be available during droughts.
Forests and wetlands can reduce run-off and pollution, soak up water and then release it as the land dries during the dry season; a service provided by nature. It is a safety net and is called natural capital. Another benefit is that animals living wetlands, such as fish and dragonflies, prey on mosquito larvae and are a natural control of the population of this pest.
Natural capital refers to services and renewable and non-renewable resources (including air, water, biodiversity, life, oil and other minerals) provided by nature (www.davidsuzuki.org). Services include purifying water, regulating climate, reducing flood risk and pollinating plants. The concept extends an economic value to natural resources, although, as Chin pointed out, they are priceless.
As mentioned many regions are facing floods. Cape Town in South Africa applies the principles of Sustainable Urban Drainage Systems (SUDS). This system aims to imitate natural water regimes by reducing the volume and speed of run-off, increasing absorption into the soil to replenish ground water and integrating storm water management with the environment.
Measures include reducing hard surfaces and directing rain to permeable areas such as flower gardens so that water can sink into the ground, thus reducing the amount of water in the drains. Also storm drains, rivers and wetlands, which are flood control measures, are part of the city’s green spaces.
The planners in Cape Town appear, in the implementation of SUDS, to have considered water management rather than only flood control. The Department of Irrigation and Drainage in the proposal to implement the Sarawak Urban Storm Water Management Manual, which is a guideline on urban storm water management, also seems to be looking at the larger picture. This strategy, which would require developers to include water storage units either as ponds or underground, is under discussion. This was reported in ‘DID hopes state govt will adopt SUStoM to mitigate floods’ on March 1.
The planners for the River Devon in Clackmannanshire, Scotland, north of Edinburgh are experimenting with the management of the entire watershed to address the actual reasons for floods not just the symptoms. This includes restoring wetlands, planting native trees along the riverbanks, controlling erosion and slowing the flow of water into the river. This water management, described in the WWF leaflet ‘River Devon Project: Slowing the Flow’, incorporates cost effective natural features and man-made ones.