IT was like a scene after a tsunami, my sister said of the devastating floods in Penang over the weekend.
She shared with me pictures on WhatsApp of the aftermath of the floods. My sister lives at the Air Itam police flats in George Town. There were debris and mud everywhere, as well as stranded cars, as many were submerged in floodwaters.
I heard things are moving now and the clearing has begun; they will probably get better as the days go by. But, as a Penangite, it pains me to hear how the floods have paralysed Penang and has been described as the worst in history. But, it seems the worst is yet to come, particularly after the authorities warned of a second and third wave of weather change, which is expected to persist until February.
I am worried about the safety of my family and friends on the island. The floods have so far claimed seven lives. My brother, the second in the family, is working at a factory as a senior technician and staying in Air Itam, while another younger brother and his wife are in Sungai Ara. My one and only sister is married to a policeman and living with her husband and children at the police flats. My wife has also expressed concern about her friends in Penang whom she has known since her days as a student at ITM (Institut Teknologi Mara), now UiTM (Universiti Teknologi Mara).
The latest flood has given new meaning to the expression “I have a sinking feeling” after it was reported that about 80 per cent of the island had been under water. This is an opportune time for everyone to come together and help flood victims until all debris has been cleared and the situation is restored, maybe not fully, but until some semblance of normality has returned.
I was born in Bayan Lepas in 1967, and before I furthered my studies at ITM, Shah Alam, in 1988, Penang was my home. For more than four decades, I’ve witnessed how Penang had transformed from a sleepy and slow-paced island into an industrial powerhouse. With this, came widespread development.
Let’s face reality. Disasters don’t happen without a reason, and warnings have been sounded for quite some time about the consequences of certain aspects of development on the island. To make matters worse, as was informed by the authorities, Penang’s current flood mitigation system is in need of a major upgrade, judging from the inability of the drainage system to cope with heavy and continuous rain.
Here’s a thought, as expressed by Natural Resources and Environment Minister Datuk Seri Dr Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar: “When the water level goes up and you’re surrounded by the sea, where do you drain the water to?”
Those who are supposed to look after the island and its people might want to remember that and try to avoid such a disaster from recurring, although it will be easier said than done.
If steps are not taken immediately to address the underlying factors, scenes of people, especially old folks being rescued, large areas inundated and all manner of daily activities paralysed, will be the norm. It should not have taken a disaster like this for us to act.
It is mind-boggling that effective measures seemed not to have been undertaken, as Penang has recorded 119 incidents of floods since 2013.
In the meantime, my sister’s and brother’s car and motorcycles will need repairing, like a lot of those belonging to other Penangites. They and others will also be wondering about their building’s structural integrity if floods continue to happen. In that sense, many will hope that the federal aid amounting to RM1 billion will be put to good use.
Already, there are proposals to avoid similar problems in future, with the Malaysian Institute of Engineers urging Penang to adopt and implement recommendations in its latest position paper, titled “Updated Policies and Procedures for Engineering Control of Hill-Site Developments”. The recommendations include identifying issues that may lead to landslides and the collapse of retaining walls, and how to address them.
Whatever the decisions taken and implemented, they should put to rest Penangites’ worries about having to deal with floods and other environmental disasters. We want Penang to continue to be the “Pearl of the Orient” and not a “man-made tsunami ravaged pearl”.
Azman Abdul Hamid is BH Features/Op-Ed Editor