National Response to Natural Disasters – A Working Framework

Nationwide flooding in 2014/2015

Many months down the road, the homeless remain homeless

An aerial view of the extent of flooding in Kelantan. Photo: AFP Mohd Rasfan.

An aerial view of the extent of flooding in Kelantan. Photo: AFP Mohd Rasfan.

Our country was hit by one of the most devastating floods in late 2014. More than 237,000 people were left homeless and the death toll hit 21.

Kelantan was worst hit with Kota Bharu, Pasir Mas, Kuala Krai, Tumpat, Gua Musang, Tanah Merah, Machang, and Pasir Putih being areas that were most affected. The catastrophe, we have been told was as bad as the 2004 Tsunami. The entire state was left in turmoil.

Six months down the road and the homeless remain homeless. HAKAM views this as a serious infringement to human rights. Many are robbed of a livelihood and a home and remain helpless till today.

A grandmother with her granddaughter still lives in a tent in Dabong, Kelantan almost six months after the flood. – The Malaysian Insider pic by Nazir Sufari, May 23, 2015

A grandmother with her granddaughter still lives in a tent in Dabong, Kelantan almost six months after the flood. – The Malaysian Insider pic by Nazir Sufari, May 23, 2015

During the catastrophe

A couple of days into the floods and while water levels rise to as high as 7.03 metres, the National Security Council’s secretary Datuk Mohamed Thajudeen Abdul said “Our entire district machinery collapsed as they had become victims themselves”.

“In the districts, the frontliners of our disaster management machinery include the village headman and district officers. But due to the magnitude of the floods, most districts were completely inundated”, he said.

There were reports of people living in shelters without food, water and aid for more than 40 hours.  The acute shortage of clean water and food was the main problem. Everything was made worst as there was power cut and breakdown in communication lines. Certain villages were cut off from the main road due to the floods and it took rescue teams a few days to reach them.

The National Security Council said that it could not reach flood victims because of the collapse on communication lines. Lack of information meant the people had to endure more. “For us to know where help was needed and how bad each district was hit became the biggest problem” said the council’s secretary Datuk Mohamed Thajudeen Abdul.

What is left of a house after the flood at Kg. Dusun Nyior, Kuala Krai. TMI photo by Afif Abd Halim

What is left of a house after the flood at Kg. Dusun Nyior, Kuala Krai. TMI photo by Afif Abd Halim

While these difficulties brewed as hours turned into days, diseases and pollution surfaced to make it even more unbearable for the victims. The unavailability of sanitation and lack of clean water led to the wide spreading of diseases.

On the other hand, many civil society organisations and individuals were pouring in to assist and provide aid to areas devastated by the floods. Malaysians were generous in gathering food supply and other necessities for the victims. Food and water supply were flown by commercial and military flights to Kota Bharu. Supplies also came on lorries from other parts of the country.

Malaysians came together and those who could just travelled to the remotest part of Kelantan – on four wheel drives – on alternative routes. The United Sikhs Relief efforts brought aid and supplies using helicopters  to remote parts of Kelantan rendered inaccessible by the floods. NGOs, individuals, businesses and corporate entities came together to donate and send aid. Corporations donated trucks and sponsored flights to deliver aid. Some how, it felt like every caring Malaysian at that time was either into packing, collecting or delivering goods or aid, or organising such efforts to get aid to the East Coast.

However, aid providers lamented that lack of boats is hampering distribution to many villages cut off from Kota Baru. It is understood that electricity cuts and flooded roads have also stopped banks from replenishing automatic teller machines (ATM) and petrol companies from supplying fuel to the flood-hit villages.

A man cleaning dirt on the floor of his house in Manek Urai Kelantan - picture The Malaysian Insider, Hasnoor Hussain, 30 December 2014

A man cleaning dirt on the floor of his house in Manek Urai Kelantan – picture by The Malaysian Insider, Hasnoor Hussain, 30 December 2014

But one common complaint that rang through the circle of bodies providing help was that, there was no coordination of these various efforts, that could have made the response more effective and efficient.

Dato’ Moin Che Umar, of UKM’s Institute for Environment and Development (LESTARI) admitted at a forum titled “2014/2015 Floods: Unraveling the Chaos” that the management of assistance could have been better blaming the lack of information for the shortcomings.

This then caused a severe break down in law and order and led to extensive looting depriving deserving victims of basic food and water. It is also undeniable that many indigenous communities were left stranded for far too long.

Malaysians under initiatives like Epic Homes, Prudence Foundation Rebuild via Project House Relief, Gabungan Impian Kelantan and others are building new homes for Kelantan when it was shown that government efforts were either delayed or hampered by bureaucracy. All Malaysian volunteers – professional architects, engineers and just about anyone who is willing to help – came together and started building new homes for Kelantan!



See also:


Disaster strikes again in June 2015 – Earthquake & Floods in Sabah

In June 2015, the nation witnessed the earthquake that rocked Mount Kinabalu. The mountain guides were the heroes for the day – while those stranded up at the peak or else where in the mountain were told or advised by the authorities to “stay put” in the cold, to wait indefinitely. They waited for a while. No one knows how long they had to wait – the helicopters were unable to land or be anywhere near enough to help.

Elsewhere, the army personnel gathered but did not get into action. They seem to be doing just what the Defence Minister (as was reported in the papers) had ordered them to do –  be “on stand by”. The ones who responded to the distress were the mountain guides. They did not hesitate to get ready and went about on the search & rescue.

Without due warning and proper responses in place, the Sabah earthquake raises many questions. There are various parties criticising the government in terms of their response to the quakes. Why were the choppers not sent earlier? Why were the army personnel told to wait and not dispatched earlier? Was the standby order part of SOP? Why were there eye-witness accounts as to idle officers from the Fire and Rescue department? Why are there allegations that these officers were not doing anything but using supplies meant for survivors?

If the accounts of some climbers are true, it meant that help was scheduled to arrive only 9 hours after the quake? And 9 hours later, they were told that no help is on the way.

The climbers’ concerns were these. That they were not equipped for an overnight stay, some were already getting hypothermia and it had started to rain, they were approaching nightfall and becoming increasingly tired.  That was when the mountain guides decided to initiate rescue efforts on their own.

Veteran mountain guide Freddie Akau said “We were told that rescue helicopters would come to get us but people were getting angry and frustrated the longer we were up there. There are now cracks and fallen rocks along the trail, making most of it too dangerous to use, so we have to find alternative routes back down before darkness fell,” he said.

It may not be wise to criticise the authorities before comprehending fully the scenario at Sabah. But it is prudent to ask valid questions. The public has raised questions that the authorities must answer to prove that all reasonable steps were indeed taken to save lives”.

Read more : Whither our disaster response? — Amar Singh HSS [7 Jun 2015]


A picture, reportedly taken on Malaysia’s Mount Kinabalu in Borneo on June 5, 2015, of climbers waiting for a helicopter after a 6.0-magnitude earthquake struck nearby. — PHOTO: CHARLENE DMP/ FACEBOOK

The earthquake affected many beyond those on Mount Kinabalu.

Along with the Sabah Disaster Response Network, other NGOs, individuals and corporations have moved forward in response to render aid.  A fine example: IMARET, an NGO, sent medical teams from West Malaysia. Their flight was sponsored by Air Asia Foundation.  Malaysians helping Malaysians.

With information from local partners, IMARET found out that there was a need of psycho-social support. The guides who were involved in the quake – whether directly on Mount Kinabalu with mountaineers or those who went in search and rescue – were badly wounded psychologically. We cannot imagine how devastating and heartbreaking it must have been – that some of them had not only witnessed death, but moved to recover the remains of the victims with their bare hands  – body parts of fellow guides, children and other mountaineers. IMARET quickly gathered a group of experienced doctors – all volunteers – to provide the necessary psychological first aid to the affected victims of the Kinabalu earthquake. They set up counselling sessions for those affected especially in the search and rescue phase. We hope the heroic mountain guides. who were also victims of the earthquake, are getting the help they so needed.

The earthquake also affected many villages and homes. Together with the teams from Sabah Disaster Response Network,  other NGOs and individuals got to work quickly in rendering aid. Basic supplies were distributed. Malaysians from all over started sending funds to assist the guides who are now jobless. Extra funds are also distributed to families and villages affected by the earthquake.


Mother Nature wreaking havoc in Sabah!

Major destruction caused by flooding in Sabah

Major destruction caused by flooding in Sabah




Roads are blocked, if not destroyed, by the floods.

The floods are back – this time it is happening in Sabah. It is notable that Sabahans have taken the initiative to form their own Sabah Disaster Response Network.

It is learnt that many Sabahans are now signing up for IDRN courses. IDRN  is an International Disaster Response Network which has crafted courses to help communities and individuals prepare and train for any likely natural disasters.  In times of disasters, it is great if the government comes to the rescue of those affected, but in the event the National Disaster Management Machinery does not kick in or is delayed – Malaysians should learn to do it for themselves!



Arising from the devastating floods late 2014 which affected the East Coast of Malaysia, the failure of the government’s disaster management machinery that was supposed to kick in to assist victims, and the continuous suffering of the flood victims to-date, HAKAM has embarked on a special (and perhaps crazy huge) initiative which we call the National Response to Natural Disasters – A Working Framework (NR2D Framework).  This is the brainchild of our President, Ambiga Sreenevasan.

It is HAKAM’s position that victims of natural disasters have the right to live in a reasonably healthy and safe environment and something must be done to ensure in times of disaster a proper system is in place that will work towards contributing to the effective protection of their inherent right to life.

Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of … lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

This NR2D Project takes on the very ambitious and brave move to bring together various organisations,  experts and other stakeholders – to put together a framework which can be used as a National Response to Natural Disasters (NR2D) for the future.


The NR2D Framework will assist in helping Malaysia strengthen its capacity for preparedness for and response to natural disasters and emergencies. This Framework seeks to complement the Government’s initiatives and obligations to manage disasters.

Building the HAKAM NR2D Framework

HAKAM plans to conduct a fact finding mission together with NGOs who participated in relief efforts especially during the recent floods in the east coast, environmental experts, environmental activists and relevant stakeholders. This is to establish and evaluate the limitations and challenges they faced during the floods and how a workable framework can be formulated for future use. The ultimate aim of the NR2D Framework is to enhance the human rights protection of victims of natural disasters in various scenarios: floods, earthquakes, land slides etc. The leadership and engagement of local governments and communities, civil society, and the private sector, are needed to address effectively the challenges posed by climate change, including those linked to human mobility. With a working framework, the national response to disasters may be further enhanced with better co-ordination to complement one another during relief work.

This NR2D Framework, we hope, will set a blueprint (a work in progress) which will help gather and filter information during disasters and enhance better management of communication, rescue and  aid. This will be a concerted and centered civil society initiative – a coalition of NGOs, corporations and individuals – to make a network for effective response to disasters.

No one can do this alone. HAKAM has already started gathering support from other NGOs who are equally as enthusiastic as we are to make this happen. The role of civil society organisations remains crucial in all phases of disaster management namely relief, response, rehabilitation, reconstruction, recovery, preparedness and mitigation. 

Experience from the 2014 East Coast Floods has shown that whilst Malaysians have been extraordinary in their generosity and willingness to volunteer in providing aid, there is room for major and effective improvement if all efforts are better coordinated to improve the response to natural disasters. Better management and coordination will ensure that efforts and resources will not be duplicated or wasted and more importantly no groups of peoples or communities are inadvertently neglected.The role of civil society organisations in the national response to disaster management can be improved after gaining an insight into the strengths of each organisation as well as evaluating the flaws and weaknesses in the current methods of handling disasters.

Art 25 UDHR

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family…in circumstances beyond his control.


1. Preliminary discussions with various NGOs and individuals involved with responsing to natural disasters. February to March 2015

2. Drafting a survey form for fact-gathering

3.  1st Roundtable Discussion with representatives of NGOs, National Security Council, Experts – to discuss lessons  from 2014 floods and other disasters and emergencies and the drawing up of the Framework for National Response to Natural Disasters (5 August 2015). To distribute survey forms for feedback (11 July 2015).

4. Collection/Return of survey forms (30 August 2015).

5.  Study, Analysis & Summary of survey forms (15 September 2015). Distribution of results of survey.

6.  2nd Roundtable Discussion on Framework (early October 2015) – various sectors drafts.

7.  3rd Roundtable Discussion on Framework – to Finalise Framework (end November).

In respect of Flood Mitigation

HAKAM is also of the view that it is time Malaysians take our environmental issues seriously. Protecting the forests is a cost effective way to reduce massive flooding. Damage to the environment is irreversible. No amount of restructuring can undo the damage.

HAKAM is concerned with reports quoting Malaysia as having the highest rate of deforestation between 2000-2012.

Climate change caused by global warming and deforestation will cause more floods. The reality is, its only going to get worst. What are the steps we are taking to prepare ourselves for this? Is there a carefully formulated national response to natural disasters that will kick-start the minute water level hits the dangerous levels? 

Major Forest Countries: Highest Percentage Forest Loss, 2000-2012

From the open letter to the Prime Minister by a group of concerned environmentalists, HAKAM gathers that there are effective and sustainable ways to avoid floods.

Quoting from their letter,

In general flood mitigation efforts can be in the form of structural and non-structural measures and would usually include the following:

*Avoidance – with proper land use planning, the state governments can control development in flood prone areas such as flood plains and riparian areas. While there is not much we can do about existing development patterns, state governments need to be more disciplined with future development;

*Protect upland forests – forests in the uplands help to moderate the floods as their vegetation help to reduce the speed of water, allow water to seep into the soil better and reduce the volume of water moving downstream;

*Minimise run-off to downstream – the Department of Irrigation and Drainage has clear guidelines (Manual Saliran Mesra Alam or MASMA) on flood retention and measures to enhance permeability and reduce the speed of water running off from a development. However, it is a pity that much of it is not well implemented;

*Improving river drainage – this is usually done by widening and deepening the river and constructing bunds/levees. This established practice for the past 50 years has its drawbacks as it often increases the speed of water which then causes other problems including higher flood peaks. It may solve flooding in one place but could lead to problems in another place. River improvements often damage important habitats for fish and other river life-forms; and

*Building more flood control dams – this is an expensive option and should ideally be the last option.

The building of dams as a flood mitigation measure has negative implications that far outweigh the benefits of building them. These include environmental, societal and economic effects such as:

*The permanent loss of forests and the ecological functions that they provide;

*Significant contribution towards greenhouse gas emissions due to the decay of organic material in the reservoir inundation area. Further greenhouse gas emissions will arise from the construction of the dam itself and all associated infrastructure building activities;

*The loss of wildlife habitats and consequent impediment of natural wildlife movement patterns and biological processes across the landscape; *The inevitable displacement of local communities, in particular indigenous communities, from their traditional territories as well as loss of their livelihoods; and

*The disruption of the natural river hydrology leading to a reduction in the deposition of nutrients downstream of the dam.

Read More : OPEN LETTER to Prime Minister: Cost effective way for flood mitigation [21 Jan 2015]


HAKAM will hold a forum to discuss flood mitigation, environmental threats to a sustainable and safe Malaysia. Proposed date: TBC.



HAKAM welcomes those interested to join us in our efforts to conduct a fact finding mission towards the formulation of a framework as an effective response to national disasters. Please contact us by email to info[at]