Covid-19 Exclusives: Making Penang More Resilient to Disasters



The Brundtland Report, known also as Our Common Future, was presented to the UN in 1987 and expounds sustainable development as meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs (Brundtland, 1987). Sustainable development is targeted at finding pragmatic strategies to promote economic and social development in ways that avoid environmental degradation, over-exploitation and pollution. Failing to do so, society runs the risk of man-made disasters like London’s Great Smog of 1952 and Ukraine’s 1986 Chernobyl disaster.

The changing climate, alongside the growing frequency and intensity of global disasters, has alerted the international society to some very real threats. In 2015 the UN announced the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, a global blueprint geared towards improving the liveability standard of cities and communities (United Nations, 2015). This is to be achieved through its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), to corral member states to end poverty, be active vanguards of Mother Earth and to improve the lives and prospects of all individuals. These goals are interconnected, and are supported by 169 targets and indicators. The failure in achieving one goal impacts the progress of others (Morton, Pencheon, & Squires, 2017).

António Guterres, the Secretary-General of the UN, reveals that the SDGs’ progression remains uneven. In the recently released Sustainable Development Goals Report 2020, Guterres explains:

“Some gains were visible: the share of children and youth out of school had fallen; the incidence of many communicable diseases was in decline; access to safely managed drinking water had improved; and women’s representation in leadership roles was increasing. At the same time, the number of people suffering from food insecurity was on the rise, the natural environment continued to deteriorate at an alarming rate, and dramatic levels of inequality persisted in all regions. Change was still not happening at the speed or scale required (p. 2).

These worries are compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic. The Under-Secretary-General of the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs estimates that the pandemic will “push 71 million people back into extreme poverty in 2020… increasing the vulnerability of the world’s 1 billion slum dwellers, who already suffer from inadequate housing with limited or no access to basic infrastructure and services.” (United Nations, 2020, p. 3)

This has yet to take into account the global negative impacts and direct economic losses, which is estimated at US$23.6bil (United Nations, 2020). The international society is at a crossroads. Questions about whether robust economic growth should continue at the expense of deteriorating life on Earth now abound, alongside queries about whether sustainability should be defended at all costs, while keeping in line with good corporate practices and governance.

Reducing Disaster Risks

The world recorded 281 natural disaster events in 2018. Almost half of them occurred in the Asia-Pacific region, including eight of the 10 deadliest (UNESCAP, 2019). Indonesia alone was hit by two tsunamis and one earthquake.

However, to define a disaster as “natural” is to be economical with the truth. Disasters are the result of a complex mix of processes, which is to say, a deadly combination of natural hazards (natural disasters), and human activities, negligence or errors (anthropogenic disasters) (Jha, 2009). Rarely do hazards alone lead to disasters.

For the last two decades, disasters have caused an increase by more than 150% in direct economic losses globally (UNDRR, 2019). This prompted member states to adopt the Sendai Framework on Disaster Risk Reduction (2015-2030) at the third UN World Conference on DRR in Sendai, Japan in March 2015. Built on the foundation of the Hyogo Framework for Action (HFA) 2005-2015: Building the Resilience of Nations and Communities to Disasters, what makes the Sendai Framework a unique policy agenda is its focus on understanding risks, strengthening governance in managing the risks identified, increasing investment and enhancing capacities in disaster preparedness and response.

UNDRR asserts that for “every US$1 invested in building infrastructure that is disaster resilient saves US$4 in reconstruction; and every US$1 invested in risk reduction and prevention can save up to US$15 in post-disaster recovery” (UNDRR, 2020, p. 1).

Given that context, Malaysia’s investment on risk science and disaster preparedness and governance can do with more reinforcing. Furthermore, many states – Penang included – have yet to see the promotion of DRR-aligned “universal design”, “wherein environments, services and information are designed to be accessible” (UNESCAP, 2015, p. 4) by all individuals in society.

If all public buildings are affixed with ramps, those with mobility challenges as well as persons with temporary injuries, pregnant women, families with young children and the elderly will certainly benefit from this ease of accessibility. Investment in universally-designed accessible infrastructure need not be costly if included during the initial planning stage, and not as post-disaster retrofitting (UNESCAP, 2015).

Malaysia’s investment on risk science and disaster preparedness and governance can do with more reinforcing.

In raising awareness of making disaster preparation the responsibility of all citizens, the Penang government may advocate for a local champion, and by extension, promoting closer collaboration between the community, NGOs and local governments. To use Japan’s Bethel House experience as an example, the local government and staff jointly developed audible evacuation tools, complemented with large-print, colourful and easy-to-read information for its residents with psychosocial challenges. As a result, when a tsunami struck the area in 2011, all residents were evacuated safely within four minutes.

In Bangladesh’s Sitakunda District, a coastal city prone to devastating cyclones, the government intentionally included 10% of the Cyclone Shelter Management Committee members with its disabled residents. This initiative resulted in saving more lives, and proved resilient against subsequent cyclones (UNESCAP, 2015).

By establishing a model of innovative partnership involving community representatives, NGOs and the local governments against disasters or public health emergencies, the Penang state government can encourage cross-sector collaborations in delivering public good.


A former officer of the UN and ASEAN intergovernmental body, with a focus on tackling all matters related to disasters. He earned his PhD on emergency management from New Zealand in 2020.

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