PETALING JAYA: As the new year began with some flood victims still cleaning their homes, experts said it is high time for Malaysia to have a more effective early disaster warning system.

Furthermore, the people must be taught how to respond to these disasters.

Disaster management expert Dr Khamarrul Azahari Razak said the traditional early warning system (EWS) should evolve into an impact-based multi-hazard EWS as promoted by United Nations for Disaster Risk Reduction.

“For example, increase the capacity of state and local governments in terms of resources, assets, technologies for search and rescue in a complex environment, such as during the night, heavy rainfall or response without telecommunication,” he said.

The director of Disaster Preparedness and Prevention Centre of Malaysia-Japan International Institute of Technology at Universiti Teknologi Malaysia said that all “technical” warnings must be translated into “guided action” to be taken by local leaders and vulnerable communities.

All existing EWS and sirens should be tested with the involvement of local communities besides being regularly maintained and upgraded when needed, he said.

He emphasised on increasing disaster and preparedness education by having nationwide drills, state-level mass evacuations, professional training and curriculum embedded syllabus.

To avoid a similar disaster in the future, Khamarrul said Malaysia would need to look critically at mainstreaming disaster risk reduction (DRR) for multi-tier development planning and developing control.

He called for multi-partnership support, consisting of public, academic, private and civil society organisations to respond and rebuild resilience in a changing environment.

“It is very timely to establish an independent review or forensic team consisting of experts from various fields and backgrounds, not only to reflect on what has happened, but also to formulate policy interventions and develop a short-, mid- and long-term solution.

“The 2021 Klang Valley disaster not only centred on flooding but was also a geological induced disaster, which is sediment-related, dam-related and typhoon induced,” he said.

Environmentalist Prof Dr Hafizan Juahir said Malaysia had people with the professional skillsets, both in public and private institutions, to develop such an early warning system.

“We need an effective early warning system that is low cost and easy to maintain so that the installation can increase, in particular at high-risk locations together with the continuous training programme for the people,” he said.

Prof Hafizan, who is the director of the East Coast Environmental Research Institute at Universiti Sultan Zainal Abidin in Terengganu, was involved in developing the low-cost low-maintenance early flood warning system.

“We succeeded in developing the equipment for the water level intelligent early warning systems with 100% local expertise that cost less than RM20,000.

“When the complementing online system is excluded, the system cost less than RM10,000 each.

“The online system needs to be developed once before it is integrated with all the equipment,” he said, adding that it could be installed at any location as long as there was Internet coverage.

He urged the government to form a special group consisting of experts such as engineers, IT specialists and environmental sciences experts to explore research and decision-making tools to make the early warning systems successful.

“The government must educate the people about environmental awareness,” he added.

Also, he said the government should broadcast clear explanations to the public on how the relevant agencies gathered weather and hydrological information.

Environment and waste management specialist Dr Theng Lee Chong said Malaysians’ mindset on disaster preparedness should change.

Generally, he said Malaysians would have no idea how to respond even if they have been warned of an earthquake because “we have never learnt that in school”.

He cautioned against “improper planning” and “over-development”, especially on flood retention ponds being developed.

“Disaster response and management (challenges) involve cross-ministerial (collaborations) with various other stakeholders.

“We do have a national disaster management agency, but how they are linked down to the community level is a question. Each local council must at least have a disaster response team and be able to take immediate action at the community level whenever disasters happen,” he said.

Professor of economics at Sunway University Dr Yeah Kim Leng said the pandemic and flood disasters had underlined the need for the government to increase its budget allocation to “boost the country’s resilience to systemic public health and environmental shocks”.

“Increasing public investment to enhance the public health system and environmental quality will have an enormous payback in reduced mitigation and remedial costs when such risks materialise.

“The early flood warning and response system needs to be improved substantially to minimise loss of lives and damage to property,” he said.