Malaysians were caught by surprise by the torrential downpour caused by Tropical Depression 29W throughout the peninsula from Dec 17 to 19. Several areas in Selangor and Pahang in particular were ravaged by floods.
Videos were circulated showing overflowing rivers, landslides, major roads cut off and motorists stranded. Homes, buildings and cars were submerged, buried and some washed away. Many residents had to rush to higher levels, including rooftops, to keep safe.
This deadliest tropical cyclone-related disaster to hit the country demonstrated that Malaysia was ill-prepared to respond to a crisis of this nature. Among the factors mentioned in relation to the disaster is that global warming is contributing to extreme weather events, including worsening floods, which are increasing in frequency.
Videos of people stranded on rooftops, suffering from cold and hunger while waiting to be rescued, have sparked the public’s anger over the government’s response to this crisis.
Insufficient early warning of the torrential rain and the uncoordinated and slow response of rescue and relief efforts provided by the authorities were factors that contributed to the public’s fury.
Prime Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob explained that rescue teams had faced difficulties in getting into Taman Sri Muda in Shah Alam as floodwaters had risen rapidly. Rescuers were unable to carry out their work as the roads were blocked by stranded vehicles. Reportedly, the teams could not respond to victims stranded on rooftops as they could not see the road signs that had been submerged.
It is globally recognised that the probability of finding survivors is highest within the first 72 hours following a disaster. So, the slow rescue and relief efforts caused grave concern that the death toll and damage to property would escalate.
As floods become more severe and more frequent, the government at district, state and national levels must embrace and invest in advanced technologies that are revolutionising disaster management.
One of the many challenges of responding to a natural disaster is the difficulty of determining the location and extent of the damage. Locating victims to effectively mobilise rescue and relief efforts is also a pressing issue. In this regard, drones can be used to pinpoint the location of victims, damaged sites, buildings, floodplains, emergency service resources and disaster relief sites.
Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs), aka drones, are being used worldwide for myriad applications, including aerial photography, agricultural monitoring, infrastructure inspection, construction, media production, as well as in research and development.
The Asian Development Bank has noted that improvements in materials and electronic control systems have made drones very useful. Their range has increased and their capabilities enhanced with high-resolution digital cameras, advanced global positioning technologies and sophisticated computing power.
UAVs are being equipped with various types of onboard sensors and advanced computer technologies with unique properties, including the ability to be deployed in life-threatening conditions and at low altitudes. The images from drones are of higher resolution than satellite pictures. They are fast becoming useful tools for large-scale aerial mapping, providing aerial photographs of inaccessible disaster areas without risking human health and safety. Underwater drones facilitate responders’ efforts to examine infrastructure and coordinate rescue efforts in heavily flooded areas.
In tandem with these developments, new regulations and policies have been introduced by several countries for the use of drones for commercial, non-hobby purposes, including their use by first responders as part of disaster response and assessment operations.
Drones used in emergency and disaster management
In January 2018, the World Economic Forum (WEF) had flagged that technological innovation is bringing digital solutions to sectors that have previously lacked access to technology, including the non-profit community. The rapid pace of this change suggests that one of technology’s most meaningful benefits for society may lie in the humanitarian sector, which must reach large numbers of people in remote and dangerous locations to provide critical resources quickly and save more lives.
A number of countries have incorporated drones into their National Emergency and Disaster Management operations, including the US in 2005 to search for Hurricane Katrina survivors in Mississippi and by India’s National Disaster Relief Force (NDRF) to look for survivors during the Uttarakhand floods of 2015, even in inaccessible regions.
Drones were also used by Puerto Rico during Hurricane Maria in 2017, which devastated the nation and wreaked havoc on its wireless and broadband communications networks, along with its power grid. With 39% of the US territory’s cell sites out of service, Puerto Rico had struggled to regain communications services.
Mozambique used them in 2019 during Cyclone Idai, which caused severe flooding in the region.
In November 2021, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had approved AT&T’s request to use a new drone known as the Flying Cow or Cell on Wings to help restore cellular service in Puerto Rico. The Pulse Vapor 55 drone, which flies 60m above the ground covering an area of 100 sq km, functions like a cell tower in the sky, providing voice, data and internet services. Mozambique used drone imagery to localise stranded communities in areas that were inaccessible by road transport. This information was used to improve the routing of rescue boats for food supply and evacuation.
Public private sector collaboration for disaster management — the Korean experience
The report, “Trilateral Best Practices: Application of Technology for Reducing Disaster Risks in China, Japan and Korea” (July 2021), showcased South Korea’s emergency drone operation team for disaster response, which is the result of a public-private partnership.
Since South Korea introduced drones as part of its disaster investigation equipment in 2013, the National Disaster Management Research Institute of the Ministry of the Interior and Safety has been using drones to investigate damage caused by typhoons and torrential rains to enhance national disaster management capabilities.
The government and private sector became partners for national disaster management, creating the “Emergency Drone Operation Team for Disaster Response”, composed of individual drone owners who hold official drone qualifications.
The emergency drone operation team serves as an exemplar of citizen participation and cooperation, as it involves individual drone operators donating their talent for national disaster management. The team aims to strengthen region-based disaster response capabilities by maintaining interaction with government agencies, including police stations, fire stations and local governments.
As the disaster management paradigm is shifting towards greater public-private partnerships, citizens and the government work together closely, particularly when it is difficult to resolve a situation using only government-led manpower and equipment.
The report noted that the active participation of the private sector in the disaster response process is not an option but a necessity in the governance of disaster management.
Recommendations for Malaysia
1. As drones are fast becoming standard equipment in many emergency situations due to their unique features, it is recommended that the government adopt this international best practice to enhance national emergency and disaster management to save lives and protect and reduce damage to infrastructure and property.
2. As the country has a number of drone specialists, the government could develop a directory of these specialists to engage them to support disaster management.
3. A number of drone suppliers are providing services for various economic activities in the country. The government could invite these companies to deliver a presentation on their products and services to identify their suitability as partners in disaster management efforts.
4. The Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission and the Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation have portfolios on drone policies and regulations. The government should invite them to discuss new policies and regulations that may be needed to support and facilitate the use of drones in disaster management efforts.
5. Disaster management personnel from the National Disaster Management Agency, police and the armed forces could identify a select number of personnel to undergo training on drones to enhance their skills in this technology with the aim of further strengthening the country’s emergency and disaster skills, competency, efforts and management.
Sheriffah Noor Khamseah Al-Idid Syed Ahmad Idid is a former special officer to Malaysia’s first science adviser to the prime minister