Not just another monsoon: where is the leadership?

by Jules Ong
The Malaysian Insider
5 January 2015

I was a disaster relief volunteer with Mercy Malaysia during its early days. Among the missions I went to were the Afghanistan post-US bombings (2002), Sri Lanka floods (2003), Aceh post-tsunami (2004) and the Sudan civil war (2005).

I used to be on their 48 hour-notice. That means, if there was a disaster, I could be called to pack and leave within 48 hours. I’m no longer on that list. Now, I do my own thing. I am a freelance journalist and filmmaker, and do my bit with friends and families where help is needed.

Last week, upon reading reports of the floods in Kelantan, I decided to call a few friends. From the little information coming in, I gathered that supplies were going in, but distribution was and still is the problem. They could not reach kampungs that were cut off from main roads, many of which were submerged, cut off by broken bridges or landslides.

I own a pretty reliable 12-year-old open cab Mitsubishi truck and decided to put it to good use. With three 4×4 trucks and six friends, we hit the open road last Tuesday (December 30, 2014), loaded up with canned food, instant noodles, drinking water, off-the-counter medicine, toiletries, candles, towels and sarongs – things people would need to temporarily weather the storm. We planned to go into hard-to-reach places left out by big distribution centres.

One of us had good contacts with the Jaringan Orang Asal Semenanjung (JOAS), so we decided to make distributions to Orang Asli villages our priority. Reports had come in that the Orang Asli were hardest hit due to their isolated locations and being inadvertently left out by distribution centres, not on purpose, but through lack of information. But I also had an obligation to deliver provisions to a friend’s family in Kuala Krai.

At Gua Musang, while one truck went east to Kampung Koh, we headed north to Kuala Krai. The other one had to return to Kuala Lumpur upon emptying its provisions at an Orang Asli village near Jerantut.

Little could have prepared us for what we saw. On the stretch from Gua Musang to Kuala Krai, the disaster got increasingly worse from Manek Urai onwards. About 30km into Kuala Krai town, the extent of the damaged revealed itself in greater severity on either side of the road. Houses swept away with only foundations and their cement stairs left. Further down, mounds of debris of what used to be homes. Trees uprooted, palm oil plantations destroyed. River banks that was inundated left dead and decaying trees all covered in silt. Everything was the yellow ocher colour of silt.

The deluge did not just rise and fall. It rose, taking along property, plants, livestock and people, dropping them far away, or dumping them into the sea.

A day before our departure last Tuesday, I called up the Banjir Hotline in Kota Baru to find out about the situation in Kelantan. A lady by the name of Puan Rohaya answered. She told me that she could not contact her family in Pasir Mas and she was worried sick, yet she was manning the hotline because it was her job.

She said in Kuala Krai, the current was so strong, their boats to bring aid in had capsized. That corresponded with what we saw after the water subsided – the extent of the damage caused by forceful moving mass of water. If it had come from the sea, it would have been called a tsunami. What I saw with my own eyes reminded me of post-tsunami in Aceh.

Here, though, the shocking thing is the lack of media attention to the extent of damage and destruction, and the government’s lack of will to provide coordination and responsible and useful information of what is really happening on the ground. Without central command and coordination, each department is doing their own thing. Praise is given when it is due. Kudos to the JKR website and Twitter for providing daily updates on road accessibility. But this information should come out from a central coordination command centre which every volunteer aid worker can access to know the weather, what to bring, where to go and how to get there.

In Kuala Krai, we went to deliver provisions to a family friend who lives by the river behind a police station. Kak Su is eight months pregnant. Her husband, Wan, told us that flood waters started to rise at 2am; by 7am it was up to the roof.

“This has never happened in our 50 years living in this kampung. This is the worst ever,” Kak Su said.

Kak Su was on a house raft built by her husband to collect latex brought down by river boats on ordinary days. She and her husband had been on the house raft tethered by three ropes to a tree by the riverbank for four days. On the last day, only one rope remained. She watched house after house being swept down the river while her husband took pictures on his phone. They also told us that about 200 people were missing from their village after the floods.

Most of the houses on the opposite bank of the river were gone. On their side, her house stood while most of her neighbours’ were piles of rubble. People stood by the roadside waiting for handouts. They were homeless and everything they owned was destroyed in the floods, except for what they were wearing. When we came in our truck, children yelled: “Bantuan, bantuan! (aid, aid)” and everyone mobbed our truck. We gave whatever little provisions we had.

Kuala Krai town looked bombed out. It was covered in silt, and stank in some stretches. No water, no electricity. Shops were damaged, goods destroyed by water and silt. Mounts of debris and discarded items piled on the roadside. People were not sure whether to clean up or to wait for the next wave of floods. Again, there was no information of what to expect and how to respond. Elected representatives appeared to be more interested in showing themselves holding babies, delivering sacks of rice with their faces on them, rather than providing much-needed central coordination and useful information. In such a situation, a normal, functioning government would create a central crisis coordination centre that would provide (or attempt to provide as best it can):

1) Daily press briefings on the weather forecast and the situation on the ground.

2) Information on what is needed and where they are needed, which areas need help, which have not received aid, access roads, directions, coordinates on locations.

3) Information of contact persons on the ground (bilik gerakan), local coordination units responsible for collection centres and distribution.

4) Information on what to expect, and if it rains again, what people should do. How should people help? What are the things needed to survive the next wave? We can’t just live on rice and instant noodles.

5) Updates on medical response. How many hospitals and government clinics incapacitated and where people can get medical aid. Where are medical provisions and doctors needed? Where should they go to provide medical aid?

6) Updates on numbers of people injured, missing, confirmed dead.

All these should be available with daily updated information on a central website online dedicated to this crisis, on radio, TV and newspapers. It has been more two weeks since the floods hit, but still nothing of that sort. This is not just another annual monsoon flood. This is possibly the worst flood since independence.

Serious questions need to be asked after disaster relief. The next phase is recovery and rebuilding which can take years. What is the cost of the damage? Who is accountable for that? It is easy to blame nature, an “act of God”, but it is not rocket science to see the impact of deforestation on the landscape. The stretch from Gua Musang to Kuala Kerai is enough to show us acres upon acres of deforested hills, and the monoculture of the 1plant: palm oil.

Forests act as a sponge to hold rainwater and release it slowly into rivers. Monoculture plantations have limited ability to do that. Most of those who lost houses to the floods are the less wealthy people who live close to rivers while those who carve out the hills for timber and plantations own wealthy companies. Who gave them the licence to log out the hills and convert them into plantations?

On the way back to Gua Musang, where we were to meet the other truck returning from Kampung Koh, we saw kampung people, both adults and children, standing by the roadside asking for handouts from moving vehicles.

A lone woman stood by the roadside struggling with three packs of biscuits with her bare hands. We had given out all our provisions and only had a couple of empty plastic bags left in the truck. I stopped my truck and my friend Nisha crossed the road and handed one to the woman. When she came back, she said the woman cried receiving the one empty plastic bag. She was trying to collect food for her family and that one plastic bag meant she could carry more for her family.

There were many, many families left out in the cold that night. One man approached me and I asked him, “Have you received aid from the government?”

He said, “Yes, there is some food. But it is cold at night, and we sleep in the open. We need blankets.”

While the media moves on to other stories (not that it dwells much on this), I wonder how long this man and his family will take to rebuild their house and their lives before the next monsoon. – January 5, 2015.

  1. #1 by Justice Ipsofacto on Monday, 5 January 2015 - 2:39 pm

    No worries.
    Tell them this:
    “Umno will protect you.”

  2. #2 by winstony on Tuesday, 6 January 2015 - 8:09 am

    All the One This and One That are just lines for fools to swallow!
    Nobody believes in such things long, long ago!!!

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