Natural disasters in Malaysia: past and future risks
Malaysia is an increasingly popular tourist destination. Every year, more and more people come here to relax on the wonderful beaches and admire the beautiful nature. They should find out in advance what kind of natural disasters or catastrophes they may encounter. A natural disaster always comes unexpectedly, but knowing about its potentiality, you can prepare for it.
Climatic characteristics of Malaysia
Malaysia is located in two climatic zones – equatorial and partly sub-equatorial. The equatorial climate is characterised by constant temperatures and humidity throughout the year. That is, in Malaysia there are no significant differences between winter and summer. It is always hot and humid.
Most of the territory is covered with mountains, which are overgrown with dense forests. Numerous small but fast rivers flow from the mountains. These rivers often overflow during heavy rains. The seasonal north-east monsoon from the Pacific Ocean is particularly dangerous in terms of flooding. These bring large amounts of moisture and occur between November and March.
The south-west monsoon, which dominates Malaysia in summer, is drier and rarely results in prolonged rainfall. But even at this time there is a risk of flooding, especially along the Indian Ocean coast.
Potential hazards that can cause a natural disaster include:
- Seismic activity. Relatively low, but earthquakes of up to 6 magnitude have been recorded.
- Large length of the coastline. Can be exposed not only to storms, but also in rare cases to tsunamis.
- Volcanism. There are no active volcanoes in the country, but relatively nearby are volcanoes in Indonesia, which pose a serious threat.
- Seasonal hurricanes and storms. Causes flooding, surge, destruction during the summer monsoon.
- Heavy rainfall. It can last for weeks and lead to sudden changes in river levels, flash floods.
- Mountainous terrain. In the rainy season, there is a high probability of landslides and rockfalls.
The importance of studying the history of natural disasters
The history of natural disasters is important information to learn before travelling to your chosen country. Knowing the potential dangers that may be awaiting you will not only help you choose the right place, but also the time and season of the year when the threat of being at the epicentre of a natural disaster will be minimal.
For example, knowing that the maximum amount of precipitation in most parts of Malaysia falls in December-January and at the same time most often occur strong storms, you can choose a different time to travel to the country.
In this article, you will learn the chronology of natural disasters that have occurred in Malaysia in the past.
The country is located in a relatively calm tectonic region. Strong and destructive earthquakes do not occur here. But this does not mean that earthquakes are completely unknown to the inhabitants of Malaysia. Very close are the islands of Indonesia, through which the Pacific Ring of Fire passes. These are constantly active volcanoes and frequent earthquakes. Their echoes have been felt many times in the kingdom.
11 August 1923
On this day, the strongest earthquake in the history of Malaysia occurred. Its epicentre was located in the east of the island of Borneo, and the magnitude was more than 6.6 points. At that time, it was a sparsely inhabited area, almost completely covered with impenetrable jungle. Therefore, there was no special destruction, and the number of victims could not be calculated.
19 September 1936
A magnitude 7.1 earthquake struck Aceh province in Indonesia. This province is located in the north of Sumatra and in the immediate vicinity of the Malacca Peninsula, where Malaysia is located. Despite the strength of the tremors, they were hardly felt on the territory of the country. There were cracks in some houses in Kuala Lumpur and Georgetown, and some roof tiles collapsed.
2 November 2002
This time, strong tremors occurred on a small island in West Sumatra. Their strength was 7.2 points. In Indonesia itself, dozens of buildings were destroyed, 65 people died. But in Malaysia, the consequences were the smallest: skyscrapers in Penang and Port Klang swayed, leading to minor panic.
4 July 2015
The epicentre of this earthquake was again East Borneo, the most tectonically active part of Malaysia. The strength of the tremors was 6 points. As a result of the cataclysm, 18 people died – all of them were in the national park and were climbing Mount Kinabalu, the highest peak of the entire kingdom. There was no particular destruction in the settlements.
25 February 2022
A magnitude 6.2 earthquake struck the west coast of Sumatra. It caused significant damage in Indonesia, killing 47 people. But in Malaysia the tremors were felt only slightly: in Port Dickson several buildings were slightly damaged, in Kuala Lumpur people panicked to leave high-rises.
Malaysia’s geographical position largely protects it from direct tsunami strikes. The country is sheltered from the west by the island of Sumatra and from the east by the Philippines. Therefore, even the effects of the 2004 tsunami, the most destructive for the region, were insignificant.
26 December 2004, Sumatra
On that day, the strongest earthquake, whose magnitude exceeded 9 points, occurred here. It generated a catastrophic tsunami that struck all countries in the Indian Ocean region, including India and even Africa. The Thai island of Phuket was severely affected by the tsunami, where the wave height exceeded 6 metres. But there were no such waves in Malaysia. Strongly weakened waves covered the island of Langkawi and the city of Penang, but even such a tsunami caused great damage. Many fishing villages were destroyed and 67 people died. Most of the dead were picnickers and holidaymakers on public beaches.
Storms and hurricanes
Beginning in late November, numerous tropical cyclones form over the Pacific Ocean, mostly affecting the Philippines. China and Vietnam, but often reach the shores of Malaysia as well. Here are some of the most destructive cyclones that have caused the most damage to the country in recent years.
Typhoon Wamei, 26-28 December 2001
The tropical storm formed in the South China Sea between the island of Borneo and Malaysia. It quickly reached the southeast coast of the Malacca Peninsula. The maximum wind strength reached 120 kilometres per hour. The storm surge and heavy rainfall caused flooding and landslides, forcing authorities to evacuate more than 70,000 people. Material damage was caused to plantations and a number of buildings. Five people died and damage totalled $3.6 million.
Typhoon Utor, 7-15 December 2006
This tropical storm did not affect Malaysia, hitting the Philippines, but caused severe flooding in the country. Torrential rains raged for 4 days, causing 8 deaths.
Tornadoes, 14 October – 12 November 2014
An unusual phenomenon for Malaysia occurred in autumn 2014. For a month, tornadoes raged in the northwestern states of the country. During this period, 42 funnels were recorded, and wind speeds often exceeded 240 kilometres per hour. Almost 2 thousand houses were completely destroyed, but victims were avoided. The total damage from the cataclysm exceeded 1.5 billion dollars.
Floods are a typical and most common natural disaster in Malaysia. They occur annually as a result of heavy rains, and they affect almost all regions of the country. The eastern states are most prone to flooding, but river overflows occur regularly elsewhere as well.
Heavy downpours caused by the monsoon hit the central part of the country. The Klang, Batu and Gombak rivers overflowed. The capital Kuala Lumpur was hit hardest. More than 180 thousand people suffered, lost their homes and were evacuated. 32 people died. As a result, the authorities adopted a flood mitigation programme.
The north-east monsoon brought heavy rainfall to the east coast of Malaysia and the island of Borneo. Overflowing rivers washed away roads, railway tracks, homes and cars. In the first days, authorities hurriedly evacuated 60,000 people. In total, more than 500,000 were affected and 21 people died. The total damage from the floods, which lasted more than 2 weeks, exceeded $560 million.
Once again, a tropical cyclone brought prolonged downpours to eastern Malaysia. They lasted for more than a month in total, flooding 8 states and forcing the evacuation of about 70,000 people. More than 50 people are dead or missing, with total infrastructure damage exceeding $1.5 billion. Authorities called the disaster the “Flood of the Century.”
The large number of mountains and frequent rainfall make Malaysia quite dangerous in terms of landslides. They can occur in any region, state, but in their majority do not pose a serious threat.
For example, on 26 November 2016, a strong landslide came down in the state of Selangor in north-east Malaysia. It destroyed a motorway, swallowing six cars and two motorbikes. Authorities quickly evacuated 350 people until the landslide was cleared. There were no casualties. But not all landslides end just as happily.
11 December 1993
After prolonged heavy rains, drainage pipes burst underground, causing the ground to erode and the collapse of one residential block of the Highland Towers complex in Selangor state. More than 100,000 cubic metres of soil came to rest. Forty-eight people died under the rubble.
16 December 2022
The worst landslide in recent years came down in Batang Kali township in the same Selangor state. Its volume exceeded 450,000 cubic metres of soil and water. The landslide affected a number of campsites in the tourist area. As a result, 31 people died.
More than 60 per cent of Malaysia is covered by dense forests. Even though the climate is humid, these forests occasionally experience fires caused by human error or accidents. Forest fires are not a typical disaster for the country, but they do happen frequently. High humidity prevents fires from spreading quickly, making the work of firefighters easier.
In February 2002, for example, severe forest fires started in the immediate vicinity of the capital. The streets of Kuala Lumpur were covered with smoke. More than 15 thousand hectares of forests were burnt out. The country’s government then went to unprecedented measures, raising fines for open fires to 130 thousand dollars.
The greatest threat to tourists in Malaysia are sudden downpours and short-term floods caused by them. It is possible to find yourself in the epicentre of the rampant elements at any moment, regardless of the season and month, but still the maximum floods and storms fall on the period from November to February.
The threat of earthquakes for the country is insignificant, most often they occur in the east of the island of Borneo (Kalimantan). On the mainland, earthquakes are felt as echoes of ongoing events in Indonesia.
There is no threat of volcanic eruption in Malaysia. But active volcanoes on the islands of Sumatra, Java and Bali carry a certain danger for the neighbouring regions.
The tropical hurricane season begins in November. From this month the amount of precipitation increases, floods are more frequent. But cyclones do not cause much destruction, passing north of Malaysia.
Forest fires are also known in the country, but they do not pose a threat to tourists. The only inconvenience that arises is the smoke that can engulf cities.
The best time to travel to Malaysia is from May to August, when it is most dry and calm.