More funding needed to protect forests for frontline flood prevention

Lim Chee Han

Malaysia's forest need better protection to counter the effects of climate change. – The Malaysian Insight file pic, March 27, 2023.

AS a result of climate change, rainstorms are increasingly frequent and more intense..

Many vulnerable communities in Malaysia live in areas that are prone to floods and landslides.

People may have observed that floods have occurred more often and in a more severe form in recent years than they had in the past.

According to the UN Research Report 2021, in addition to the increase in the number of days classified as “heavy rainfall”, the maximum annual rainfall intensity has also increased significantly. It was observed in 2000-2007 that the latter grew 17%, 29% and 31% in the occurrence of one-hour, three-hour and six-hour rain periods, respectively, compared to 30 years ago.

The report also found that 29,800sq km of land would likely be affected by annual flooding.

As many as five million people could be at risk. The population likely to be affected by extreme river flooding alone as a result of climate change is estimated at 102,290 people in 12 years’ time.

It is vital for the government to plan and invest in flood mitigation.

The previous Ismail Sabri-led government announced that RM15 billion would be allocated to flood mitigation projects from 2023 to 2030, which works out to RM1.9 billion per year.

In Budget 2023, the major expenditure allocations are for: flood mitigation and urban drainage (    RM1 billion); dredging of river mouths (RM208 million); prevention of coastal erosion (RM177 million); and upgrading of infrastructure and urban drainage, flood mitigation (RM118 million).

However, I argue that the frequency and severity of floods cannot be attributed solely to increased rainfall and climate change. Flood mitigation can only be effective if the other causes of flooding is addressed.

I urge the government to consider gazetting and reforesting our forests as a frontline flood prevention measure.

What I found in Budget 2023 is that only RM150 million has been set aside for the current Ecological Fiscal Transfer for Biodiversity Conservation (EFT) programme, which amounts to about 8% of the allocation for flood mitigation.

The EFT is a intergovernmental fiscal transfer mechanism and redistribution of federal funds to state governments, based on agreed principles and priorities, with the aim of maintaining or increasing the size and quality of protected forest areas. The programme was implemented as federal government policy from 2019.

How does this figure compare to the amount allocated by the federal government for tourism promotion this year? RM250 million.

The government also plans to spend RM480 million on new roads from Habu to Tanah Rata in Cameron Highlands to ease traffic congestion. This one project is already three times this year’s EFT allocation.

The government should show political intent and commitment in future EFT budget allocations.

Similar programmes should be considered for inclusion in the flood mitigation budget, especially for projects located in flood hazard map areas.

Additional efforts should focus on stopping the problem at its source, as forests are the best natural water catchment, reducing soil erosion and siltation of our rivers.

My colleague Lim Yi Hui argues that building more sabo dams will not help flood control in the long term, as more silt accumulates in the dam and reduces the effectiveness of barriers to hold back the runoff water.

More silt, because deforestation means more soil could be washed down the river and into the drainage system where trees used to help hold it back.

Deepening riverbeds and building concrete dams or flood barriers are only reactive measures which have a severe environmental impact, particularly on river ecosystems because they destroy the habitats of aquatic animals. – March 26, 2023.

* Lim Chee Han is a founding member of Agora Society and a policy researcher. He holds a PhD in infection biology from Hannover Medical School, Germany, and an MSc in immunology and BSc in biotechnology from Imperial College London. Health and socioeconomic policies are his concerns. He believes a nation can advance significantly if policymaking and research are taken seriously.

* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight. Article may be edited for brevity and clarity.

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