In the wake of devastating Penang floods, it’s time to reconnect with Nature

The torrential rain pelted not just to the ground. The howling, raging winds swept the raindrops into an almost horizontal direction, battering towers and homes mercilessly.

Nov 10, 2017

By Anil Netto
The torrential rain pelted not just to the ground. The howling, raging winds swept the raindrops into an almost horizontal direction, battering towers and homes mercilessly.

Even occupants of some high-rise apartments were not spared. The rain clattered against the sides of tower blocks, seeping through the glass of windowpanes and flooding balconies leaving many apartments in a mess.

Outside my window, a false ashoka tree and a coconut tree, swayed wildly in a tango as if they were high on ecstasy in a seedy dance club.

Across large parts of the state, angry winds even uprooted large rain-trees by the roadside. Some of these trees in narrow green verges were, perhaps, already suffocating between widened roads on one side and drains on the other. Many cars were submerged in apartment car parks or nearby.

Angry flood waters rushed into homes in low-lying areas or near burst river banks, without any notice. The water level quickly rose knee deep and in some cases even chest or shoulder high. One Penangite described how the swirling torrent wrestled a refrigerator to the ground.

Many, including senior citizens, living on their own panicked. A couple of thousand eventually had to be evacuated. At least seven reportedly perished.

For Penang, this nightmarish storm swept in soon after the Oct 21 landslide shock, which killed 11 people, and the Sept 15 floods, which have now faded into memory.

Whereas, previously, the thought of global warming and its impact seemed somewhat distant, this triple whammy awakened many to the reality of climate change and its brute force, which has now reached our shores.

While many have attributed the ‘freak weather’ to the effects of Typhoon Damrey, which killed at least 27 in Vietnam, other factors may have aggravated the impact.

The many hill clearings for property development, which the mainstream media seem to avoid showing, have eroded slopes and worsened surface run-off. The silt and sedimentation can’t have helped to improve the flow of water downstream.

Indeed, the flood waters looked suspiciously brown and muddy. As one Penangite observed, the thick slimy mud, inches deep in some places, couldn’t have come from Vietnam.

In the name of development, we have poured concrete and asphalt over lush green grass and soil, which once helped to absorb rainwater into the ground. It is almost as if we cannot bear to see any untouched green spaces, even in our places of worship. We have this urge to build, baby, build — thus reducing the permeability of the ground. So, are we surprised when the flood waters have nowhere to go?

Nor do we feel comfortable feeling the earth beneath our bare feet. Perhaps the cement and asphalt separating our feet from bare soil is a metaphor for our collective disconnect from Nature.

Behind the doom and gloom, the one bright spot is how many Penangites rallied in solidarity, crossing barriers of race and religion, in support of relief efforts, whether in rescue and relief efforts or through donations of food, drinks, blankets and cash.

At times like this, we realise that we share a common bond of humanity and that the things that divide us pale by comparison with what keeps us bonded in interconnectedness as a human family.

In the week after, we have to go back to the drawing board and take a good hard look at our unsustainable development policies. We can’t go on building on every green space we can find — and there is no need to, when the population of Penang is increasing only slightly. In fact, the total fertility rate of the state has actually fallen below population replacement level, and the only thing pushing up population slightly is a small net inward migration rate.

The Penang Structure Plan, gazetted in 2007 but now under review, has to go back to the drawing board so that comprehensive climate adaptation and mitigation plans can be incorporated. The prohibition against hill-slope development above 250 feet and above a gradient of 25 degrees now in the Structure Plan must be tightened and enforced and loopholes eliminated. Those projects below the threshold should be reviewed.

The federal government must quickly provide funds for emergency flood mitigation projects all over the state. It would be unconscionable not to provide sufficient funds when people’s lives are at stake.

And the most difficult part of all: we need to take a good hard look at the role that Greed and speculation and our model of development — which put profits above people — has played in the frenzied ‘development’ across the country, especially when many of the new homes on sale are priced beyond the reach of ordinary Malaysians.

Those who could afford it bought properties for ‘investment’ — but many of these investments, in the wake of raging seas, burst river banks and angry floods and landslides, may not look as secure as once hoped.

Sometimes we look at climate change and extreme weather events and think there is nothing we can do. We think we can only adapt and mitigate — and then carry on with business as usual. But that is a defeatist attitude: if all of humanity think that way, then we are in trouble as the terrible effects of climate change will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Each of us has to do our bit to examine our lifestyle and see how we can reduce our carbon footprint, our consumption and live simpler lives. We need to narrow our collective disconnect with Nature. This means ending our love affair with concrete and tar and going back to appreciating Nature, revelling in the moist soil and the dew-laden grass under our feet.

There is no better place to start than by reflecting on the Bishop of Rome’s encyclical Laudato Si … Care for our Common Home.

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