Lessons from the great floods

Lessons from the great floods
An aerial view of a flooded area near Pengkalan Chepa. Climate change means both heavy rainfall and dry spells can occur within the same year.

The first half month of 2015 saw Malaysians pre-occupied with the big clean-up following the big floods that swamped many states, especially in the east coast.

It will take some time to get houses, schools, hospitals, offices, roads, drains, railway tracks, back into pre-flood shape.

The cost of doing so is staggering, with each the initial figure exceeded by new estimates.

The total will run into many billions of ringgit. The Government will foot the bill for repairing public facilities; and there is some government and spirited public help for flood victims' personal losses.

But the affected people will still bear immense suffering and losses, for example, of lost business and livelihood income on top of the lost household belongings.

It is time to learn the lessons and prepare for the future.

Hopefully a high-powered coordinating council will deal with all aspects of analysing the causes of the floods and how severe we can expect future floods to be, of minimising the causative factors, preparing better to mitigate future events, and preparing to manage them more effectively when they inevitably happen again.

Recent events and climate science strongly indicate that the 2014 downpour and floods are not one-off events but part of a national, regional and global pattern linked to climate change and extreme weather events.

And that we can expect the situation to worsen, more and more, in future years and decades.

Malaysia has experienced increase in temperature, consistent with the global warming trend, according to data in a 2012 paper by Yap Kok Seng, then the head of the Malaysian Meteorological Department (MMD), and his colleagues.

The global temperature increase has led to changes in weather, including major wind patterns, amount and intensity of precipitation, and increased frequency of severe storms and weather extremes, according to the paper, "Malaysia Climate Change Scenarios".

Malaysia has experienced more extreme weather events over the past decades, as well as an increase in weather extremes, says the paper, backed up by graphs and statistics.

This increase could be associated with the natural variability in the sea surface temperatures of the equatorial Pacific Ocean (El Niño/La Niña events) and the Indian Ocean (Indian Ocean Dipole).

For example, the north-east monsoon of 2006/2007 and 2007/2008 brought torrential rain and floods to Malaysia, with the 2006/7 monsoon being the worst recorded over the southern part of the peninsula, especially in Johor, causing the worst floods.

"Other extreme events such as severe thunderstorms, dry periods and haze have become more prevalent over the recent years.

Due to the complex interaction of the atmosphere, ocean and biosphere, global warming definitely has contributed to these changes, with climate variability and global warming acting in the same direction over the period."

The paper points out that as the climate changes due to global warming, therefore, sea surface temperatures (SSTs) also continue to increase.

Higher SSTs are generally accompanied by increased water vapour in the lower troposphere, thus the moist static energy that fuels convection and thunderstorms is also increased.

Most tropical rainfall, as experienced in Malaysia, is from the thunderstorm activities.

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