Malaysia has just suffered some awful floods down in the south of the Malay Peninsula, caused by a massive rainfall combined with storm surge up the rivers. The funny thing is that Singapore doesn’t seemed to have suffered. (For you geographically challenged other-side-of-the-worlders, Singapore hangs off the bottom of the Peninsula, hooked on by a couple of bridges, and yes, it is another country).
When I was working down in the mangroves of the south back in the nineties, we came across a couple of things that raised our environmentalist eyebrows. Both were as a result of projects by the state government.
One was a large road being driven across a mangrove area in order to connect, ultimately, the east of the state to the state capital by a more direct route. The road was raised above the water level, like a bund or levee. We approached it by a small boat up a small river and suddenly there was the road ahead of us – and there were no culverts underneath to allow the passage of water.
That’s right. The engineers had cut the river in two with a road. Upstream there were more mangroves, now cut off from the tide and doomed to die – and villages, now doomed at a guess to flooding.
The second project we saw was a failed attempt to farm a coastal area. Mangroves had been cleared and the land parcelled out to grow coconuts or pineapples. A bund had been built to keep the sea out. And it was breached during a storm, flooding the whole area and devastating the farms, which were then abandoned. Mile upon mile of wasteland, desert in the tropics.
I guess those flooded Malaysians are suffering the effects of past government policy which encouraged development without a thought for environmental cost. Now, of course, they are having to rethink, and I believe they are replanting mangroves in parta of Malaysia. It would have been cheaper to listen to us.
When NGOs complained in the 1990s about the development of rivers right up to the water’s edge in spite of an old colonial law that stated that riverbanks were sacrosanct for, I think, 50 yards on either side (I could be wrong about the actual figure), the government of the time said airily that that was not really what the law said. It was just advice.
Advice they were apparently happy to ignore.
Well, a lot of Malaysians have suffered this holiday season. I wonder why.
There’s a photograph here, which is actually from a previous flood this time last year, but which I think sums up a lot. It shows a man saving his cat. This is an elderly man in the process, one guesses, of losing all his worldly wealth – which may not have been much to begin with. Yes, he’s a Muslim Malaysian, in the midst of personal suffering, but I wonder if he is any different from anyone of heart anywhere else. In this coming year, if you feel tempted to make a sweeping statement about another group of people, think of this picture.