Some lessons from the Penang floods

Ooi Kee Beng

KUALA LUMPUR: The unprecedented floods that struck Penang should spur state governments to begin thinking seriously about how the effects of dramatic climatic change can be mitigated at the most local level.

Ooi Kee Beng, the executive director of the Penang Institute, said freak storms were appearing with increasing intensity, and people could no longer take blue skies and cooling rainfalls for granted.

The Penang Institute is a public policy think tank funded by the Penang state government.

In an article in The South China Morning Post about the Nov 4-5 floods in Penang, Ooi said islands were the front-line victims of climate change.

Therefore, he said, state governments, especially those of small and hilly islands like Penang, must ensure environmental management and developmental prudence in policy making.

Another revelation following the floods was the swift response of ordinary people in reaching out to help those affected.

There were also those who tried to gain political mileage out of the situation, he noted, giving as example Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi’s remark that the floods were a sign from God that the state was ripe for the taking by Barisan Nasional.

This was based on the belief that the floods had hurt the standing of the Pakatan Harapan-run state government.

Ooi said this was far from the truth. If anything, he added, the response from Penang residents showed their support for the government of Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng.

Ooi noted that a construction site landslide and floods even before the massive November floods had put pressure on the state government to improve the situation. For years, NGOs have been demanding that the state and local governments exercise more control over hillside developments.

Seven people died and damage running into millions was caused by the November storm and floods.

Ooi said Penang was found wanting when the November storm struck.

“The floods came fast and furious in the middle of the night, accompanied by winds howling like banshees, toppling trees and tearing off branches.

“Understandably, most services were paralysed. The extent of the crisis immobilised large parts of the island and the mainland.”

He said help had come from across Malaysia. Volunteers came, some from as far as Johor, and many gave donations in cash and kind.

“The speed at which debris was cleared away and houses and streets washed clean was astounding, a testimony to how Penangites and Malaysians rose to the occasion to help their fellow citizens.”

Ooi said the Penang state government, “despite certain clear weaknesses concerning its overall ability to act in a crisis, gained much sympathy for its overall compassionate handling of the situation”.