WITH FLASH FLOODS and air pollution to the occasional landslides, Penang is no stranger to natural disasters. As general development continues at a dizzying pace and the impact of climate change becomes more apparent, the frequency and severity of these disasters naturally increase.
Studies have shown that Penang is expected to experience longer periods of dry spell and intense rainfall. Coastal and low-lying areas are likewise expected to be inundated by rising sea levels and thunderstorms, threatening the State’s food production and water supply. Great economic losses and social upheaval are anticipated, along with the loss of human lives.
Disaster management in Malaysia is currently prescribed by the National Security Council’s Directive No. 20 (MKN20), which details three levels of disaster governance. For localised incidents that have no probability of spreading, the authority in charge is the District Officer. For incidents traversing two or more districts, the State Government helms the responsibility. Finally, for incidents that are complex and affect at least two states, their management is coordinated by the Central Government.
Read also: The Penang Green Agenda 2030
The breakdown of the type of disasters, as well as the roles and functions of the different agencies are shown in Figure 1. The current governance structure set out in MKN20 adopts a top-down approach. Confined to government actors, it deals mainly with operational matters during a disaster. The authority neither provides mandatory forward-looking disaster risk assessment and planning at the local level, nor does it mandate capacity building for communities and non-governmental entities (NGEs) in disaster preparation and post-disaster resilience building.
This limitation is partly due to capacity and resource shortages. With the exception of Selangor and Sarawak, there are no dedicated disaster management units at the local and state levels. This lack of awareness and knowledge among members of the public will only serve to heighten their collective vulnerability, and result in avoidable fatality and damage should a disaster strike.
In 2018 a proposal by the Penang Green Council to set up a dedicated Disaster Management Unit was put forward to the State Government. This recommendation is based on findings of the Disaster Risk Reduction and Management (DRRM) Working Group, created under the Penang Green Agenda 2030 initiative,1 and involves stakeholders from all government levels, including the National Disaster Management Agency, the Civil Defence Department and non-governmental organisations. The DRRM Working Group has identified a variety of challenges that Penang will likely face in the event of a disaster and concludes that such a unit at the State level will provide tremendous needed support.
The suggested dedicated Disaster Management Unit, or DMU for short, will complement the existing “operation-focused” response regime by targeting two important areas: i) pre-disaster planning that consists of data collection and analysis, as well as risk assessment; and ii) community engagement and capacity building. These new areas of focus within the State’s disaster management regime will expand its scope beyond disaster response to include pre- and post-disaster activities. The proposed new structure is illustrated in Figure 2.
This lack of awareness and knowledge among members of the public will only serve to heighten their collective vulnerability, and result in avoidable fatality and damage should a disaster strike.
An effective disaster management and prevention regime – achieved through comprehensive assessment of risks, proper planning (including planning for strategic infrastructure and land use), a good early warning system, timely and coordinated response and community preparedness – will increase the resilience of the people (and place) against disasters. But ultimately, a systemic collation of relevant data, e.g. relating to weather, river level, soil movement, etc., has to be given top priority for timely and informed decisions to be made.
If the idea is accepted by the State, the DMU will be working closely with various departments and local governments that are already in the thick of data collection, and alongside the Penang Geographic Information System Centre to gather new information. It will also centralise and facilitate both data collection and sharing.
More comprehensive risk assessments for the short-, medium- and long-term will be prepared based on the information compiled, with the risk report to be updated annually or bi-annually and shared with all government departments. The DMU will also coordinate information exchange (including real-time data sharing) of imminent threats between agencies and promote more systemic early warning systems throughout the State.
Determining and reducing symptoms of vulnerability, be they in the form of fragile and inadequate facilities, poverty or disability, can also enhance community resilience. However, this will again require the cooperation of the State Government and various stakeholders to tackle the problems at source, instead of merely focusing on one-off assistance.
To achieve this, the DMU is to introduce a string of community outreach and capacity building programmes in collaboration with government agencies such as the Civil Defence Department and the Village Community Management Council (MPKK), such as: i) awareness raising; ii) training members of the public on disaster preparation and the use of emergency equipment; iii) improving capacity of the MPKK to act as “first responders”; and iv) adopting local disaster action plans designed together with local communities.
A database will additionally be created to consolidate the NGEs currently involved in the different stages of disaster management in Penang, from providing food and shelter, to post-disaster clean-up and welfare services. This will allow the State speedy access to resources as and when they are needed.
The DMU will also work with the NGEs in establishing a more structured framework to guide and facilitate coordination between the State Government and NGEs, as well as among the NGEs themselves. Effective and timely coordination can help reduce economic and social disruptions to the community and businesses.
The scale of future threats necessitates that we Penangites be on our guard; and having a more effective and forward-looking disaster regime through the DMU should ensure that limited resources are used optimally and effectively.
1Penang Green Agenda 2030 (PGA) was launched in 2017 by the State Government as an initiative to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.