As parts of Terengganu flood for the second time in as many years, the islands where I’ve spent so much of my life recently have not been spared. During FxPedition Perhentian Islands we spent a lot of time staying in the middle of the village. We spent many nights eating out at the local restaurants, and we played football with kids and adults alike on the village beach football pitch (though the less said about my performances in goal, the better).
I’ve stayed in the village twice now, and quite a lot has changed between times. This year there was a few new buildings by the jetty, and the beach football area had been enclosed off by fencing and concrete structures to hold back the tide. A concrete bridge of sorts was built to link a new motorcycle path to Long Beach to the village. Importantly, the parts that needed updating, especially the sewage system, hadn’t been. The problems with the open sewer system and wider sewage disposal issues are not new, and I can find English-based papers citing the issues all the way back in 2001. Shockingly, a paper specifically mentions how yearly flooding is common on the islands due to overcrowding and lack of government investment that was promised in the 1990s (Ghani, Yassin and Ahmad, The Social Sciences, 2010). Conversely, a Malay language report suggests that this year’s flooding is unprecedented in scale.
We found out early yesterday that little, if anything, has changed. Some 30 homes were flooded, and aspects of public infrastructure were badly affected. If the images are anything to go by, it looks like the open sewer system has been badly damaged, and if that water has been flowing through the village then it represents a serious health hazard to local residents. These are genuinely devastating floods, and the economic losses will be significant. It it not just the locals that have been affected, as I understand that the island’s only health clinic and police station has also been affected. The response from government agencies has been good, with the Coastguard and Navy assisting to evacuate affected people to Kuala Besut, as far as I can tell, as well as assessing the damage to the village.
They wouldn’t have to do that, though, if the government had properly invested in supporting the residents where it is actually needed it. Whilst flooding on this scale may be rare, papers show that it is not uncommon. Upgrading the sewage system (that has shown to impact drinking water quality and thus health) would be a sure start. I’m sure Malaysia has enough skilled Geographers to assess flood risk, and I can only help that studies are carried out to work out how to protect the village from the next event. The Perhentian Islands are an excellent financial resource for Malaysia- it is damn time that the government treated the residents with the respect they deserve. The islands may be a beautiful paradise for tourists in summer, but what about the poor residents during the monsoon season? Having lived with them, I can tell you that the islanders are tough and resourceful and will respond to these difficulties with courage- it just seems evident that more could be (and should be) done to help them.
Sadly, the islanders are not isolated in their plight, with some 23,000 evacuated across Terengganu state. My thoughts are with them and the islanders at this challenging time.
I am well aware that criticising the Malaysian government is risky, but if no-one ever says anything then nothing will change. The people of the islands deserve better. The first slideshow’s images originate from myself and Joshua Gray, the rest are taken from social media. The opinions expressed above are solely my own.