Webinar on “Peninsular Malaysia’s Floods of 2021 – Investigating the Causes and Possible Solutions”

In this webinar, Dr Christine Fletcher and Ili Nadiah Dzulfakar used their understanding of climate change and forests as a nature-based solution to extreme weather calamities to explain how anthropogenic damage to terrestrial habitats could be compounded by climate change.


Monday, 7 February 2022 – Peninsular Malaysia was stricken by massive floods in December 2021, as heavy rainfall resulted in more than 50 dead and close to 70,000 people evacuated. The ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute organised a webinar to understand the importance of forests to reduce the likelihood of floods, and potential strategies to prevent a repeat of similar climate disaster. The guest speakers were Dr Christine Fletcher and Ms Ili Nadiah Dzulfakar. Dr Fletcher is a trained ecologist and served in the Forest Research Institute Malaysia for 17 years, responsible for government and international project grants relating to forest practices and biodiversity conservation. Ms Nadiah is the co-founder Klima Action Malaysia (KAMY), a climate justice group that mobilises the declaration of a climate emergency in Malaysia. She works as a climate policy consultant and advisor.

Dr Christine Fletcher explained that the forest canopy serves as an excellent barrier to intercept rainfall. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Dr Fletcher illustrated the importance of forest cover to reduce the risks of flooding. She explained that the forest canopy serves as an excellent barrier to intercept rainfall, with only about 70 per cent of the rainwater reaching the forest ground. By reducing surface runoff, the risk of flooding is significantly reduced. Conversely, the risks of flooding are exacerbated in deforested areas. She commented that more than half of Malaysia’s total landmass is covered by forest, though the percentage varies significantly between the urbanised West Coast states and East Malaysia. In Peninsular Malaysia, 43% of the land is forested although East Coast Peninsula states have a higher percentage than the West Coast.

Subsequently, she provided a typology of the various types of forest regulation. Most of the forested land in Malaysia are classified as Permanent Forest Reserve (PFR). Within PFR, one-third of the forest are protected while the remaining two-thirds are for “production” purpose where selective logging is permitted under sustainable forest management. Based on the guidelines established by the Forestry Department, the felling of trees must not exceed a certain proportion while also practicing directional felling to mitigate the ecological damage. In addition, the subsequent round of timber harvesting may only take place after 25 to 30 years to ensure that the forest may be given time to regenerate. Dr Fletcher clarified a common misconception that equated logging to deforestation. She explained that deforestation only occurs in instances of a land use change, in which the forest is converted into non-forest uses. Timber harvesting remains a crucial source of revenue for the state governments, despite agriculture comprising less than 10 per cent of the national’s GDP.

As the Malaysian constitution stipulates that land rights fall under the purview of state governments, Dr Fletcher explained that state governments serve a critical role in the conservation of forests within their respective boundaries. The Forestry Department under the federal government only has the powers to advise state governments, while offering technical support. Dr Fletcher concluded her presentation by arguing that the Malaysian government expenditure for climate disasters remains disproportionally skewed towards mitigation measures (for instance drainage system and flood relief centres). In contrast, little resources are allocated for adaption despite the increasing pace of climate change.

Ili Nadiah Dzulfakar argued that extreme climate events have become increasingly frequent due to rising greenhouse emissions. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Ms Nadiah began her presentation with an overview of the impacts of climate change. Apart from flooding, climate change is also responsible for droughts, forest fires and a rise in sea levels.  She argued that extreme climate events have become increasingly frequent due to rising greenhouse emissions caused by human activities. Malaysia remains vulnerable to climate change, as rising sea levels threaten to submerge large swathes of Klang Valley while erratic weather patterns adversely impact agricultural production. She concluded her presentation by highlighting the need for Developed Countries to bear their share of historical responsibility through adequate compensation to Less Developed Countries, with the funds channelled towards tackling climate change.

During the question-and-answer session, participants asked if Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) are required prior to timber harvesting, the differences within PFR and whether forest protection should be counted towards carbon credit.

The webinar attracted a large turnout of 120 participants from Singapore and abroad. Dr Serina Rahman, Visiting Senior Fellow at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, moderated the webinar. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)