Life in Malaysia scorched by El Nino

Ray Yeh Channel NewsAsia 21 May 16;

NORTHERN MALAYSIA: Like an answer to prayers, rain has returned to Malaysia after several dry and scorching months, but now a new weather spectre beckons - flooding.

Climatologists have predicted the current cycle of El Nino, which has been wreaking havoc across the globe, would tail out by the middle of the year. Signs are now pointing instead to the formation of its climate counterpoint, La Nina, which is characterised by below-average temperatures and higher-than-usual precipitation in Southeast Asia.

The past few days, for instance, have seen heavy downpours and flash floods in parts of Malaysia.

Yet even as major rivers threaten to overflow, water levels at some dams in the country are still worryingly low.

The effects of the 2015/16 El Nino phenomenon - one of the strongest ever recorded - continue to be keenly felt by many Malaysians. Indeed, its full impact around the world has been described as “devastating and far-reaching” by United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) president Oh Joon.

As hot and dry gives way to cool and wet, Channel NewsAsia looks back at how El Nino has impacted the lives of Malaysian residents.

PREPARED FOR WATER RATIONING

In mid-April, at the peak of the El Nino drought, the possibility of water rationing was raised in northern Perlis, Malaysia’s smallest state. One of the affected areas was Kaki Bukit, a small village near the Malaysian-Thai border.

Fortunately for Madam Nusara Chuwat, a long-time resident there who runs a small eatery out of her home, the rationing did not materialise in the end. But she and her family were prepared in any case.

“We store water in tubs like this,” she said, pointing to a lidded black tub placed near the drain. “I change the water every few days, if there are mosquitoes.”

Like Mdm Nusara and her family, many Kaki Bukit villagers are of Thai-Chinese descent. Songkran - the Thai New Year usually marked by the throwing and sprinkling of water - was a subdued event this year.

“It was bad. They said no water, so they asked us not to play with water,” she said, noting that the hot and dry spell was “the worst” she had ever experienced.

SCHOOLS CLOSED

In March and April, Peninsular Malaysia received 60 per cent less rainfall than in previous years. Record-high temperatures in Perlis and Kedah forced schools to close on several occasions.

Ms Sabrina Hashim, 33, a primary school teacher, said: “Temperature reached 41 degrees Celsius. Before the schools closed, teachers would brief the students on the dangers of the hot weather, so that the kids would not play outdoors even at home.”

Ms Sabrina said teachers were disappointed that scheduled outdoor programmes that took months to plan could not be carried out. “We were forced to postpone them.”

According to her, although water rationing was announced by the Malaysian Public Works Department, “they didn’t stop the water, only the water pressure is low.”

To cope with this, some teachers resorted to bathing in school. “The schools had big water tanks, and their homes had low water pressure, so they would bring their clothes along to bathe at school.”

MORE EXPENSIVE PRODUCE

Over in the state of Kedah, despite the recent rainfall, Beris Dam in Sik district was only at 32.5 per cent of its capacity as of May 12.

The prolonged dry spell depleted dams and affected agricultural output across different states, spurring the spike in fresh produce prices by as much as two to four times.

Greengrocer Mr Johari Ahmad, 56, held up some red chillis. “This used to be RM10, now it’s RM25,” he said.

Pointing to another item at his stall in a farmers’ market in Alor Setar, he added: “Sawi (mustard greens) from Cameron Highlands used to be about RM2. Today it’s RM7.”

Mr Johari and his wife, Mdm Arnita Safitri, 40, spent hours each night bargaining at the wholesaler’s market due to the reduced supply. “The farmers growing vegetables dig their own wells to store water, but then the wells dry up, and they can’t grow vegetables anymore. But demand remains high,” he said.

“Before, if we wanted 20kg, the wholesalers could give it, but now if we ask for 20kg, they give us 10kg.”

Fishmonger Mr Haji Awang Ahmad, 63, faced similar problems. He said: “There are fewer prawns from the sea. The seawater becomes hot, and the prawns go to the coral reefs (to hide).”

Fish such as mackerel that used to cost less than RM10 per kilogramme “now costs RM12 to RM16”, said Mr Haji, whose income took a hit as a result.

“During normal season, I’d earn RM2,000 per day. Now I earn about RM1,400 to RM1,600 per day,” he said.

Mr Zakaria Osman, a 53-year-old fruit grocer, deemed the drought the “worst ever in history”. He said: “I used to earn about RM500 a day, now my income has reduced by half to about RM200.”

HEAT STROKE AND DEATHS

Besides leaner earnings, these stallholders have also taken a hit to their health from prolonged hours of work in the sweltering heat.

“Medical expenses also increase because we get sick more. If I don’t drink enough water while selling here, I get fever tomorrow. The kids get fever too,” said Mr Johari.

Malaysia’s health ministry recorded more than a dozen heat exhaustion cases and at least two heat stroke-induced deaths during the heatwave.

“Those working in the fields suffer more,” said Ms Nor Syafiqah, who works at a vineyard near Beris Dam. “We’re worried, because the heat can be dangerous. That’s why we always make sure we have enough water.”

GRAPES UNSCATHED BY HEATWAVE

Despite the record-high temperatures, the vineyard’s harvest was “the same as in previous years”, she said. The vineyard uses a generator to pump water from a river upstream of Beris Dam.

“The skin of the grapes may break and black spots appear on some of the grapes, but we clean the fruits daily, so the effect isn’t so much.”

According to the latest forecast by the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Climate Centre, rainfall over Malaysia should return to normal by June. However, the air temperature would likely remain slightly above average.

It could also take Malaysia several months to replenish its dams because rainfall is typically lowest during the southwest monsoon, which usually begins in May.

LOSSES AND SUFFERING

IHS Global Insights, a firm providing investor insights, estimates that economic losses caused by El Nino in Southeast Asia could top US$10 billion (S$13.4 billion).

However, the price on human suffering is incalculable. The United Nations (UN) estimates that 60 million people are affected by drought and other extreme weather events triggered by El Nino. Water shortages have left millions in desperate need of food, water and medical care.

"Those running food and drink stalls face problems getting water, and have to close their stalls for extended periods," said Nur Adila, who works at a food stall her relative owns near the Beris Dam.
The UN has urged the international community to boost efforts to reduce the risk of humanitarian crises caused by El Nino.

“We must remember that El Nino is not a one-off event but recurring global phenomena that we must address for future generations,” said ECOSOC President Oh Joon on May 6, at the opening of a special UN meeting to address the impact of the 2015/16 El Nino phenomenon.

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