East Coast flooding – breaking the annual cycle

By Jason Loh

With the northeast monsoon expected to set in from Nov 11 onwards as projected by the Meteorological Department, the spectre of coastal flooding inevitably returns to overwhelm the East Coast states once again that in turn should prompt calls for flood management solutions that breaks the annual cycle and ‘ritual’. 

Therefore, it’s rather conspicuous in this respect that Budget 2021 made no provision for coastal flood defenses but only covered stamp duty exemption for flood insurance under the ‘Perlindungan Tenang’ takaful scheme.

On Nov 10, senior minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob announced that the National Disaster Management Agency (Nadma) has come up with the standard operating procedures (SOPs) – due to Covid-19 – in preparation for the floods. 

The SOPs involve guidelines on evacuation of victims, managing temporary relief centres (PPS) and post-flood operations.

The SOPs require that each PPS be equipped with a MySejahtera QR code to be used by every officer and flood victim. 

Ismail Sabri also said “PPS must also be disinfected before receiving flood victims, and adequate equipment including face masks, hand sanitisers, and thermometers must also be provided. All enclosed areas should be left open to allow ventilation and removal of contaminated particles”.

Floods not only bring severe inconvenience and disruption to daily living but also impact livelihoods and add further burden on the cost of living through destruction and loss of properties.

Emir Research’s third quarterly poll found that even in the rural areas – which are areas just as affected by coastal flooding – rural folks are still very concerned with “the high cost of living, increasing price of basic needs, inadequate housing, prices of agricultural commodities and water supply” which may be severely exacerbated by the floods. 

Going forward and in view also of climate change, Emir Research would like to propose the following coastal flood defence mechanisms which could possibly be implemented for the East Coast (and to a lesser extent, the West Coast too):

Firstly, land reclamation in the name of construction of artificial land barriers – both contiguous and non-contiguous – should be given serious policy consideration. 

Examples include:

  • Lagoons. These lagoons would serve a dual-purpose, i.e. both for coastal flood defence and eco-tourism. Third and fourth complementary and supplementary factors would be coastal conservation and a source for harvesting renewable energy. 

The artificial lagoons would also be climate-resilient and “future-proof” against potential rising sea levels.

  • Polders. Similar to lagoons, we should also consider the construction of polders that serve as a buffer in low lying coastal areas – following the very successful example of The Netherlands and Singapore.
  • Dykes, levees, and “simulated” peninsula strips. These artificial coastal barriers would integrate with and support the function of lagoons and polders by providing the first-line of defence and barrier.

Allowance in our designs for predicted sea level rise should be made a standard metric.

Barrages would also be built and installed at strategic locations to provide support in the form of water level control, especially from the upstream as well as diversion and pumping or draining flood water into the lagoons and polders.

Following from this, an integrated water pumping system – a series or grid of pumping stations – should be developed that are linked to canals and rivers and located near coastal areas to ensure excess water is drained into the artificial catchment areas and by extension the sea, beyond the coastal defence system.

Not forgetting also is the critical imperative of promoting coastal conservation, rehabilitation and protection that simultaneously cushions against the impact of hydrological variations – the “bio- or eco-shield” strategy as proposed by stakeholders such as the Malaysian Nature Society (MNS).

This primarily involves gazetting of existing mangrove eco-system and planting of mangrove trees in the intertidal areas or zones.

Secondly, to prevent lateral, i.e. coastal erosion, sediment from the tidal channel could be transported on to the marsh plain in the form of the tidal flat wetland systems. In addition, installation of groynes or similar hydraulic structures can prevent lateral erosion.

When it comes to preserving natural catchment areas, what is critically needed is for more canals to be constructed as artificial water catchment areas alongside detention and retention ponds. 

Earlier this year, it was reported that NADMA would seek to develop a National Risk Register (NRR) covering virtually all aspects of disaster management. The NRR is a risk assessment tool for the decision-making process across the spectrum – development projects, disaster mitigation programmes and rescue operations. 

When it comes to the NRR and coastal flood management, NADMA in synergy with the Meteorological Department, Malaysian Remote Sensing Agency, Department of Survey and Mapping Malaysia, Department of Irrigation and Drainage alongside the relevant state government agencies should via the tidal gauge stations, telemetric rainfall stations, weather radars, and satellite altimeters (SALTs) monitor and scan for the impact of the following:

  • climate change; 
  • shifting and eroding coastlines (due to sea levels, tidal activities);
  • extended effect and unexpected direction of cyclones such as Tropical Depression 36W, Cyclone Greg, Typhoon Vamei, etc. that have either struck our coast before or came perilously close to doing so.

It could be argued that coastal flood management and defence might be even more critical and of an urgent priority compared to urban areas. This is because of the capacity of the pre-existing infrastructure and facilities of the coastal flood management and defence system. 

It’s now the time for a National Flood Management and Defense Policy – that reflects our commitment to human security as well as sustainable development as reflected in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and hopefully as a wish-list that could be incorporated into the upcoming 12th Malaysia Plan. 

Jason Loh Seong Wei is head of social, law & human rights at Emir Research, an independent think tank focused on strategic policy recommendations.

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