Saturday, 3 January 2015

Prepare now for the next big one

Serious flooding is not a new phenomenon in Malaysia. In fact, it is an annual event, occurring at more or less the same time of the year, varying only in the location, the degree of severity and extent of damage.
Hopefully, the worst is over as I write this, and the recovery and clean-up efforts can proceed.
Putting aside why our country does not seem prepared for this disaster despite its regular nature, what can we learn to better prepare for the future?
Many things are needed when the waters rise, and among the first is information. Detailed and accurate information. Which areas, which roads, which stretches of which roads are low-lying? How low, relative to some standard point?
The marks left by the receding waters show clearly just how high the floodwaters were in many places. Now is the time to gather data and prepare detailed elevation maps.
When the next floods hit (and they will, as surely as December follows November), the authorities should be able to tell quickly which towns and villages and roads are threatened.
If the water reaches 1 metre in a particular spot in Kuantan, for example, they should know approximately how high the floodwaters are at various areas in the state of Pahang, which areas are inundated, which roads are passable to which categories of vehicles.
Wouldn't it be nice to have a colour-coded map, update hourly, showing clearly which roads and kampungs are green, or yellow, or red zones?

This blog is primarily about my passion for 4X4 vehicles and activities so it should come as no surprise that they come into the picture.
It has become clear, thanks to numerous photos and videos posted on social video, that 4X4 vehicles have been crucial in delivering much-needed aid to areas that are otherwise inaccessible.

There has been no shortage of goodwill and good deeds from all segments of Malaysian society in responding to calls for help. Donations in cash and kind have poured in, an there is no shortage either of lorries and even containers to transport them to distribution centres in affected areas.
But hundreds, maybe even thousands, of lighter vehicles are still needed to get the goods to where are needed most.

This is where the privately owned 4X4 vehicles have stepped forward. From seasoned 4WD enthusiasts and veterans to newbies who just purchased a double cabin pick-up recently, they all responded magnificently, organising themselves through Whatsapp and Facebook.
They raised money, collected donated goods, loaded up their trucks and headed off. Many who had little or no experience in offroad driving placed their faith in their travelling companions, some of whom were complete strangers until recently, to help show them the ropes.

Bravo to you all. Even if the floods this time were so bad at their peak that even 4X4s could not get through, the water was bound to subside within a couple of days to a level that the relief missions could proceed.
For the future, the authorities should encourage the formation of 4X4 clubs and activities, and also close ties between them and the agencies that are likely to be in the frontlines when battling future disasters, agencies like Bomba, JPAM (Civil Defence), RELA, JPJ and the Police.
When the alarm is raised the next time, someone in charge should know that they can call on the Mitsubishi Triton Club, the Toyota Hilux Club, the Ford Ranger Club, the Land Rover Club, etc, and which areas to assign them to.
There are many of these groups out there, most of which are formed casually for members to discuss subjects common to their favourite marques, their next "teh tarik" or TT gathering or offroad trip.
With some initiative from the authorities, it should not be too difficult to link up with them.
When there are no disasters, that would be the best time to plan and prepare, to organise training sessions to help them become more familiar with the capabilities and limitations of their vehicles and themselves. As the old wisdom goes, one should not wait until the tummy aches to start building a toilet.

It is heartening to note that several government departments have gone to the ground or "turun padang" to assist even though disaster relief is not their function. Departments like Jabatan Pengangkutan Jalan (JPJ) have earned praise on their Facebook page for using their 4X4 vehicles to help distribute food and other aid goods in areas that lesser cars cannot get to. Let me add my praise and compliments here. Syabas, JPJ!

That said, let's build on it. The authorities should recognise that, in our hour of need, there are many privately owned vehicles out there that are much better prepared and equipped for the arduous task than their own, which are largely as stock standard as the day they were delivered.
Enthusiasts who spend their own time and money to pursue offroading as a hobby also end up having more capable vehicles - better tyres, winches, snorkels, etc, when the need arises. Many also have more experience in driving through water, thanks to their leisure adventures.
Ironically, many of these improvements may be illegal in the eyes of the JPJ, perhaps because the rules have not been updated to reflect changing technology.

For example, JPJ's guidelines on tyres says "Pemasangan tayar yang lebih besar sehingga mengubah ketinggian keseluruhan kenderaan adalah tidak dibenarkan." (Fitting of bigger tyres that change the overall vehicle height is not permitted).
This could and should be amended to spell out a specific amount of extra height that is permitted, "up to 50mm", for example.
Bearing in mind the usefulness of 4X4 vehicles in helping victims of disasters, the JPJ could hold talks with the 4X4 community to discuss what constitutes permissible, safe and useful upgrades to 4X4s instead of just banning any and everything.
Perhaps, to prevent abuse, there could be some kind of "technical permission for specific modifications" in writing granted to specific vehicles that have signed up as volunteers for future disasters, either as a club member or at an individual level.
The good news is, Malaysia potentially has a huge fleet of tens of thousands of 4X4 vehicles, available and ready for action at a moment's notice, all paid for and maintained by private individuals at zero cost to the Government.
Even if not all are willing or able to come out and help, tapping into just a percentage of this pool of volunteer auxiliaries will be a big burden taken off the authorities.
All that needs to be done now, before disaster strikes again, is to put in place some kind of plan to coordinate these privateers when the need arises.
I hope the lessons of the past week are not quickly forgotten. When the rains start again, there won't be much time to get things done.