Written by: Ain Zahra binti Hisham, Elaine Tan Su Yin, Nurafiqah Mohd Sahar, Yong Sin Ng, Zhi Lin Yeoh
Edited by: Tan Zhai Yun (Nat), Felix Culas
The impacts of climate change are happening now. This year alone, we have seen scorching heat waves and wildfires in Europe , deadly floods in Bangladesh , unusually heavy downpours in the arid region of Middle East,  and prolonged droughts in East Africa  . These events have killed thousands of people, displaced millions and left families on the brink of famine.
Malaysia is not spared from climate change and is particularly vulnerable to flooding. The frequency and extremity of flood events in Malaysia are expected to increase in the next few decades, according to projections by scientists.
The impacts of climate change will only intensify if we do not take action now. Apart from doing everything we can to cut greenhouse emissions and slow the pace of climate change, we must adapt to the consequences of climate change to increase our resilience and protect our communities.
The Malaysian government has mentioned that it plans to formulate a National Adaptation Plan, which will include a long-term action plan and strategies for various sectors.
What is Climate Adaptation?
Adaptation is one of the primary responses to climate change. In simple terms, adaptation means a response to a perceived risk or opportunity. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC):
Climate change adaptation is an “adjustment in natural or human systems in response to actual or expected climatic stimuli or their effects, which moderates harm or exploits beneficial opportunities.”
These responses include changes in processes, practices, and structures to minimise potential damage or maximise potential beneficial opportunities associated with climate change.
There are inevitable effects of climate change that mitigation efforts cannot address. For example, planting trees alone is not enough to lower the Earth’s temperature. Some studies and models suggest that high carbon taxes have not effectively reduced CO2 emissions to the levels needed  .
Countries and communities must adapt to climate change by developing and implementing relevant solutions. Adaptation solutions vary by location and are subject to climate risks that are unique to each place. The first step of climate change adaptation is to understand local risks and develop plans to manage them.
This article highlights some adaptation measures implemented in other countries. It also looks at what we can do to deal with the future effects of climate change in Malaysia.
Example of Adaptation Measures in Coastal Areas
[Sucharitakul, G. & Hardy, J., 2021]
Japan is a country surrounded by water. In 2018, Japan was recognised as the country most affected by weather-related disasters. Weather events such as typhoons and tsunamis result in severe damages because many industrial activities in Japan are located near coastlines
Japan’s Ministry of the Environment (MOE) has listed possible adaptation measures based on projected climate change impacts. For example, Japan’s National Plan for Adaptation to the Impacts of Climate Change includes assessments of climate change impacts on tidal flats, saline wetlands, kelp beds and coral reefs.
Additionally, the MOE encourages regional impact assessments. This is to integrate protection of ecosystems into local climate change adaptation plans. Natural ecosystems, such as mangroves and seagrass, help reduce the impact of waves and currents by acting as natural wave breakers. They function as the first line of defence against large waves in coastal areas.
This practice is relevant to Malaysia as the country has coastlines measuring around 4,500km. Mangrove ecosystems protect this coastline. 629,038 hectares of mangroves are found in Malaysia, with 60% in Sabah, 22% in Sarawak and the remaining 18% in Peninsular Malaysia.
The structure of mangrove roots is able to prevent soil erosion whilst the mangrove ecosystem reduces the force of oncoming waves, thus preventing flooding. It is important to conserve mangroves to safeguard our biodiversity and coastal communities.
Malaysia has already lost more than half of its mangroves, resulting in loss of biodiversity such as cockles and clams. Coastal communities are also affected by the loss of mangroves. They depend on this ecosystem to provide a livelihood through fishing. Beyond protecting the coastline, mangroves act as a carbon sink. They absorb above five times more carbon compared to forests .
Hence, by conserving the ecosystem of mangroves, it will not only benefit the environment but the economy and the surrounding community. Conservation of the mangrove ecosystem is also a form of nature-based solution, which is defined as solutions that aim to create the greatest impact without compromising the environment and the economy.
To illustrate the importance of mangroves and corals, think of the airbag in a car. The airbag (mangroves and corals) minimises the impact to your car (coastline) when a collision (high impact waves) occurs.
Example of Adaptation Measures in Urban Areas
China is the country most affected by flooding in the past 20 years . The Sponge City Concept (SCC) was first proposed by the Chinese government in 2012 as an adaptation measure to its flood risk.
The SCC is an urban stormwater management concept. The city is capable of acting like a sponge that stores stormwater during the wet season and reuses it during the dry season. A sponge city is set up by reconstructing existing water and stormwater management systems and building green infrastructure for infiltration, absorption, storage and purification of stormwater in urban environments . To simplify, SCC helps a city adapt to floods and droughts by improving the efficiency of existing stormwater drainage and irrigation systems, and utilising natural landscapes such as lakes and forested areas to slow down and store stormwater for future use.
[Infographic of the sponge city concept (Pattinson, 2021)]
Other than flood management, SCC also indirectly contributes to reduced carbon emissions and surface temperature in urban areas (urban heat island effect). A case study conducted in Xiamen, China, showed that expansion of urban blue-green infrastructures (blue elements such as rivers, canals, ponds, and green areas such as trees, parks and forests) and effective use of rainwater harvested from the sponge city reduced 66,266.7 tons of carbon emissions annually and cooled down the city’s surface temperature .
The sponge city concept shows developing countries how sustainable stormwater management can be implemented in rapidly urbanising regions.
In Malaysia, the major floods between December 2021 and early January 2022 in Klang Valley resulted in a RM6.1 billion loss  and 55 fatalities . The region has continued to experience flash floods every month since. This has caused massive anxiety among citizens, with some forced to evacuate and many more facing traffic congestion.
As a city built on the flood plain of the Klang River Basin, it is normal for the flat area adjacent to the river to experience flooding during periods of heavy precipitation. As a result, the rivers in the city were reconstructed into straighter, wider and deeper concrete channels that serve to transport stormwater into the ocean faster when the flow is heavy.
However, rainfall intensity and frequency are getting more unpredictable and severe due to climate change. In addition, blue and green spaces that can help to retain rainwater and slow down the surface runoff of stormwater have been replaced with roads and buildings due to urbanisation.
Blue-green spaces provide a porous surface for stormwater to filter (infiltrate) to the soil while moving through the surfaces. In contrast, concrete infrastructures prevent stormwater from filtering through the surface into the ground. As a result, the built infrastructures speed up the time taken for the stormwater to flow from the nearby surface into the river, making the area more prone to flooding as the river is unable to withstand a large amount of stormwater in a short time.
Currently, Malaysia still favours hard engineering approaches for stormwater management. The greatest example is the Stormwater Management And Road Tunnel (SMART) tunnel in the KL city centre. The tunnel helps to mitigate 45% of flood events in Kuala Lumpur . The government is considering building another SMART tunnel in Shah Alam to mitigate future flooding in the city .
Beyond these, more sustainable measures must be taken. The city should plan adaptation measures for once-in-a-hundred-floods. Despite the name, these are expected to occur more frequently due to climate change .
A sponge city with blue-green areas can address another problem: the urban heat island (UHI) effect.
A study showed that land surface temperature in Kuala Lumpur increased by 1.64oC between 1989 and 2019 due to the urban heat island (UHI) effect. UHI Ipoh showed the largest increase in temperature of 6.75oC between 1998 and 2019 . UHI is an effect where an urbanised area experiences higher temperatures than nearby areas due to land cover change. This happens when built infrastructure such as roads and buildings absorb and emit heat more than green and blue areas in the city.
In Kuala Lumpur, reduction in vegetation cover and land-use changes were the main causes of the UHI effect . Vehicle traffic and air conditioning usage also contribute to increased temperatures .
A well-planned city with adequate blue-green areas such as Putrajaya has a lower UHI effect compared to other cities in Malaysia . However, even well-planned cities can induce the UHI effect from their buildings.
The Malaysian government has proposed projects like China’s Sponge City to address flooding. The Kuala Lumpur City Hall and the Department of Irrigation and Drainage (DID) has plans to build an underground storage tunnel. It is designed to store flood water and release it into the river during low flow .
Additionally, DID is implementing a flood disaster risk assessment based on climate change projections. The assessment covers 36 major river basins in the country and is expected to be ready by 2024. These are critical efforts to develop and implement sustainable climate adaptation measures.
Nevertheless, it is important to ensure these findings and data are shared among stakeholders, including the public and private sector, to encourage implementation of climate adaptation measures from different parties. For instance, it enables private sector players and individuals to make decisions on where to live, work and invest in assets according to the findings of the risk assessment.
On the other hand, it is challenging to align the sponge city concept with ongoing urban planning and renovation portfolios. Successful implementation of the Sponge City Concept will require knowledge sharing among relevant stakeholders . However, relevant stakeholders in Malaysia are often working in silos.
For example, even while the KL City Plan recognises the importance of retention ponds and flood retention zones in mitigating floods, 6 retention ponds in KL were turned into development projects by the city hall, making the city more prone to flooding . In addition, irrigation and drainage guidelines available for developers are not enacted with laws, making it hard to manage existing drainage systems for the holistic implementation of the sponge city concept in Malaysia .
Therefore, collaboration between stakeholders, including developers, the transportation sector, policymakers and the urban community is essential for the implementation of sustainable adaptation measures to address flooding and the UHI effect.
Social Adaptation Measures for Climate Change
A vital climate adaptation strategy to protect communities is to build climate-resilient education infrastructure and systems in climate-vulnerable countries . For instance, Bangladesh is prone to super cyclones. In response, the country began implementing a cyclone warning and evacuation program .
In the past few decades, Bangladesh’s cyclone-tracking systems have improved significantly through satellite monitoring and early warning systems through radio and mobile phones, run by volunteers. In May 2020, when super cyclone Amphan hit the country, it resulted in fewer than 30 deaths. More than three million people on land received the warnings and were able to take shelter .
Moreover, primary schools in Bangladesh are being constructed to serve as cyclone shelters. This is aimed at significantly reducing casualties from cyclones. The World Bank’s Multipurpose Disaster Shelters Project is helping to make the coastal population in Bangladesh less vulnerable to natural disasters through 552 new shelters, 450 rehabilitated shelters, and about 550 kilometres of new rural roads. Moreover, the project is supporting community-based early warning initiatives and the shelters are fitted with solar panels and rainwater-harvesting devices .
Meanwhile, in Malaysia, we are constantly faced with extreme weather events, heavy rainfall and flash floods. Recently, Malaysia’s Ministry of Federal Territories announced plans to review, establish and upgrade the early warning system by using SMS blasting to inform the public of weather events quicker and more accurately to minimise damage and fatalities caused by unexpected calamities. Although Malaysia is not affected by the cyclones, the solution practised by Bangladesh is worth learning from. It has proven that building community resilience can significantly improve adaptation strategies and minimise the effects of climate change.
Call to Action
Everyone must recognise the importance of climate adaptation to reduce Malaysia’s vulnerability to the harmful effects of climate change. To recognise is to learn, acknowledge, observe and take action. In times of crisis, it is vital that we speak up. A modest first step is to send emails to our Members of Parliament (MP), who are supposed to speak on our behalf in the parliament. The link below will bring you to a video from Youths United for Earth (YUFE). It shows how you can contact your respective MPs. Click here for a template of the letter.
Some topics to consider writing in your letter:
- Your experience dealing with climate change impacts
- The urgent need for climate adaptation in your area of observation
- Your own suggestions on climate adaptation measures
At the end of the day, we need to elevate the voices of the people on matters that affect them. Through our research on successful climate adaptation measures in other countries, we hope this catapults you to participate more actively in efforts to adapt to climate change.
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(Example of Adaptation Measures in Urban Areas)
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(Social Adaptation Measures for Climate Change)
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(Call to Action)
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