Staying Prepared For natural disasters

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The National Security Council is now 42 years old. However, its contributions to national security, public safety and natural disaster management go unnoticed.

After the May 13 riots in 1969, the National Operations Council was formed to restore law and order. It was disbanded when Parliament was restored in 1971. However, the Cabinet decided that it was still necessary for a body to look after the safety of Malaysians. Thus, the National Security Council (NSC) was born in July that same year.

Today, the NSC plays a very sophisticated role; it is the principal policymaking and coordinating body for disaster management in the country, and is in charge of activities related to disaster preparation, prevention and mitigation, response/relief and recovery/rehabilitation. It is under the purview of the Prime Minister’s department and coordinates activities among various agencies at the federal, state and district levels.

The NSC operates under the “Policy and Mechanism on National Disaster and Relief Management” directive, which serves as the main disaster management guideline and lists the responsibilities and functions of related agencies under an integrated emergency management system. Coordinating activities on such a scale requires the establishment of a Disaster Management and Relief Committee, which functions in the following way: the District Office ensures that responses are coordinated, that assets and human resources are sufficient and that there is effective communication with the media. At higher levels, the state and/or federal government will support cross-boundary coordination and the mobilisation of additional resources.

PRIORITIES FOR EMERGENCY PREPAREDNESS

As a member of the Asean National Disaster Management Offices (NDMOs) network, the NSC, like its Singaporean counterpart’s Civil Defence Force, sets the priorities in emergency preparedness and disaster management based on three major principles: prevention and mitigation, readiness and awareness.

Flash flood in Kemaman.

a) Prevention and mitigation

Malaysia suffers from frequent flash floods, especially in urban areas. Every year, an estimated 29,800sq km of land is inundated, affecting the livelihood of 4.82 million people and causing economic losses at an average of RM915mil annually.

In response, the government established a Permanent Commission for Flood Control, helmed by the Minister of Human Resource and Environment, to oversee all tactics and strategies for flood control. In addition, several prevention acts were introduced, such as the Town and Country Planning Act 1976 (Act 172), which requires public participation to be mobilised in the planning process for development plans and requests for local authorities and the general public to respond during and after emergencies/disasters.

The Road Platform Rise Up Study formulated by the Public Works Department1 brings proactive solutions towards effective assessment and risk mitigation of multiple hazard-turned-disasters. The National Slope Master Plan provides a comprehensive guide for slope management and disaster risk reduction strategies on landslide hazards, which have been widely used by government agencies and the private sector to minimise the risk of slope failure disasters. At the first World Landslide Forum held in Japan in November 2008, the Department was chosen as one of the 10 World Centres of Excellence in Disaster Risk Reduction by the United Nations Secretariat of International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR).

b) Preparedness

The Malaysian government has spent billions of Ringgit under various Five-Year Malaysia Plans on flood mitigation projects, increasing the allocation from RM1.79bil under the Eighth Malaysian Plan (2001-2005) to RM5.81bil (2006-2010) and RM5bil (2011-2015) under the Ninth and 10th Malaysian Plans respectively.

One of the more innovative solutions to flash floods in the KL city centre was the construction of the Stormwater Management and Road Tunnel (Smart). The 9.7km tunnel integrates both storm water management and motorway with the same infrastructure, diverting flood water from entering this critical stretch of traffic at the city centre via a holding pond, bypass tunnel and storage, thus preventing spill-over during heavy downpours.

The Meteorological Department installed an integrated system comprising hundreds of rainfall and water level stations, precipitation gauges, boards and sirens at strategic locations all over country to effectively deliver early warnings. The Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004 also spurred the Meteorological Department to accelerate the development of a National Tsunami Early Warning System. Currently, early warnings are disseminated through sirens, text messaging, telephone, websites, the mass media and public announcements.

To keep abreast of emerging technologies in disaster monitoring, the NSC is currently utilising the state-of-the-art Disaster Monitoring and Response System to strengthen early warning, advanced disaster monitoring and evidence-based decision-making capabilities. It is also studying the use of a web-based crisis information system called WebEOC to ensure seamless communications between offices at the federal and district levels.

REGIONAL COOPERATION ON RISK REDUCTION

On December 7, 2012, the Malaysian government made significant contributions to the Disaster Emergency Logistic System for Asean, including the construction of a purpose-built warehouse and other facilities at the Royal Malaysian Air Force Base in Subang to stockpile and distribute disaster relief items to other Asean member states. This project operates in cooperation with the UN World Food Programme and costs the government US$1mil annually.

In July 2005, Malaysia joined other Asean member states in signing the Asean Agreement on Disaster Management and Emergency Response (AADMER)2 and ratified in December 2009. AADMER is a regional, legally-binding agreement, the first of its kind in the world that binds countries together to promote regional cooperation and collaboration in reducing disaster losses and intensifying joint emergency response to disasters in the Asean region.

Malaysia was also chosen to chair the Unescap-led Committee on Disaster Risk Reduction in 2009. In addition, bilateral cooperation in disaster management was also established with Thailand under the Disaster Management Working Group of the General Border Committee (GBC).

CHALLENGES AND CONSTRAINTS

Disaster risk reduction has not been a point of emphasis in Malaysia at the federal, state or local levels. Focus was instead placed on disaster response and post-disaster relief and recovery. In light of this, the NSC has a vital role to play in accelerating the institutionalisation and legislative processes to ensure that disaster risk reduction is a national priority.

In times of disaster, the local community is always the first to respond at the scene. But state and local governments with frequent disaster-prone areas are facing constraints in resources. For the sake of disaster preparedness strategies and anticipating and identifying risk, disaster risk assessments need to be carried out at the local level and in more specific locations. Such efforts would require more effective analyses, dissemination of existing information databases, resources and the development of different tools in support of such assessments.

The government is reviewing the value at risk of communities by developing a clear understanding of the cost-benefit trade-offs involved in averting or reducing the impact of such climate-related hazards under the 10th Malaysia Plan (2011-2015). Such measures include the development of a comprehensive risk framework to assess, quantify and address climate risks faced by the economy.

CONCLUSION

The NSC is currently formulating a national policy, focusing mainly on disaster risk reduction. A National Platform on Disaster Management will be established through a multi-stakeholder mechanism, gearing towards a proactive, holistic multi-hazard approach in identifying, preventing, mitigating and preparing for the more unpredictable disaster risks.

The importance of the private sector in supporting risk reduction and preparedness programmes is also noted. New ideas, expertise, technology, funds and talent from the private sector can support the disaster risk reduction initiative at the regional, national and community level through a public-private partnership. For instance, software developers can develop knowledge banks or web-based depositories based on local disaster scenarios, and develop open software for the rapid assessment of risk, economic and social losses.

The role of the NSC as the NDMO is critical in ensuring that a functioning multi-agency emergency management mechanism is in place when public order is under threat of a natural disaster. Constant training, coordination and simulation need to be conducted to test the mechanism and standard operating procedures.

The sustainability of national and community development is closely related to the level of preparedness a nation has against vulnerabilities or risks. Malaysia, spearheaded by the NSC, must thus continue to improve its capabilities in handling multi-hazard crises through regional and international cooperation, public-private partnership and the institutionalisation process.

1 www.kkr.gov.my/en/node/14668.
2www.asean.org/resources/publications/asean-publications/item/asean-agreement-on-disaster-management-and-emergency-responce-work-programme-for-2010-2015

Lee Khiam Jin is the head of the Corporate Affairs and Programme Division, Asean Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management (AHA Centre). He was formerly the Economic Affairs officer of the Information and Communication Technology and Disaster Risk Reduction Division, Unescap.



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