The Human Particles of Planetary Health

By Professor Sabine Chaouche, Associate Dean (Research and Postgraduate Studies), School of Arts,  Co-Director (Sunway) – Future Cities Research Institute*.

Cities have always been living spaces, created and developed by and for humans, that is, by and for bodies and souls. The Greek philosopher Aristotle once said about the relationship between the body and the soul: “just as general good condition of the body is compounded of the partial excellences, so also is the excellence of the soul qua end” (Eudemian Ethics, 1219b29-21a4). He meant that several parts of the body must work excellently to ensure overall well-being.

Just as Mother Earth is a particle of the universe that has its own rights and one might call its “partial excellences”, cities around the world themselves are living microcosms that play a certain role in planetary well-being. They are core elements of Mother Earth like any living beings are, since they are part of and form the Earth’s ecosystem. However, human-dominated ecosystems like cities are unstable, very heterogenous and complexly hybrid, as they are made of natural and technological elements managed through urban design and planning as well as city leadership. Like living organisms (plants and animals), humans who have created these cities can be producers, consumers or decomposers (recycling of matter).

Looking at the current threats in Malaysia such as a decrease in biodiversity (due to deforestation), climate change (in particular natural disasters resulting from it), increasing environmental issues such as air and water pollution, and a low rate of recycling (31.52 per cent in 2021), it is now necessary for all its beings to balance their doings. Harmony is the key to liveability ― not just for humans, but for all. The so-called “Anthropocene Epoch” becomes almost obscene. Humans have such a great effect on their environment, their cities, and the planet as a whole that this has led to the current global crisis. Our own wrongdoings threaten life itself because, instead of being “decomposers” on top of producers and consumers, we have essentially become destroyers and wasters: what remains from human activity is not reintegrated into the life cycle.

So, let’s go back to Aristotle’s philosophy and reflect on it. Cities with their populations and built environments, have their own soul (made of minds), and a body (made of matters). Thus, cities must strive for moral and physical excellence: the former is related to notions such as ethics and intellect; the latter to habitus (ingrained habits) and praxis (embodiment of customs). These are intertwined. So the main question is not how we should do to be good, but how we should be to do good.

What way and pathway do we want to follow to be in accord with the flow of Nature? During the lockdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many city dwellers have tasted the bitterness of confinement, being trapped in condos. Some dreamt of those havens of peace with green landscapes, the wind gently swaying the branches of trees, and the soothing shade of rain trees. By being forced to slow down our movements and actions, we have somehow simply left space in ourselves for self-reflection and given ourselves more time to be present. While we are historically reaching a point of no return, we have reconnected our minds with nature and what seems to be our true nature: being. Will we have the spleen to be true to ourselves when all but concrete jungles are gone; when animals and plants are mere images on screens, being entirely replaced by robots and Artificial Intelligence (AIs)? The health of the planet primarily lies in our minds, and then in our hands.

In this context, the ancient philosophical adage “exercise your body to have a healthy mind” (mens sana in corpore sano) needs to be revisited as it is not the way to achieve a ‘[good] general condition’ [of the planet]. The relationship between body and mind/soul has to be questioned when it comes to planetary health, as humans, by overexploiting the earth’s resources, and creating overperformance-based living systems, have exhausted the planet and, unfortunately, its ability to recover. What should really be “exercised” to be healthy is our minds, and also perhaps consciousness, on an almost spiritual level. Let us strive to regenerate the failing parts of mankind and energise the pulse of the cities we live in. By searching and working together with an open mind, we, the human particles of planetary health, can find solutions that will lead not just to technological progress, which we tend to rely on too much, but more importantly to behavioural changes which, in turn, will lead to a more sustainable environment. 

Researchers can play a central role in this new approach. They can dedicate themselves to cultivating, at the heart of cosmopolitan and universalist research, new civic values, vision and mission which will be essential for improving and balancing the being and the doing, and thus the living condition of the planet and its cities.

*First Publsihed in Business Today on 3rd July 2022

Senior citizens’ flood experiences and their ideal world scenarios video

The Resilient Cities team, as part of their UNDERSTNAD project (“Towards Understanding and Incorporating Senior Citizens’ Needs in Disaster Response Operations“) have created a video of Senior citizens’ flood experiences and their ideal world scenarios.

Located just outside the ‘Pacific Rim of Fire’, Malaysia frequently suffers from floods. In 2021, a “1-in-100 year” rainfall led to severe floods across eight states in Peninsular Malaysia, affecting over 125,000 people. Ageing population presents a pressing challenge in disaster management given the growing size and heightened vulnerability of this demographic group.

Seeking to understand the senior citizens’ needs during natural disaster, the team organized workshops with the senior citizens in Klang Valley Malaysia who were flood survivors. This video presents their experiences and wishes, and calls for a change to protect them.

Natural disasters in Malaysia: Resilient Cities photography contest

The FCRI’s Resilient Cities theme recently hosted a photography contest on natural disasters in Malaysia. Here are the winning photographs.

First Prize

KELANTAN 2015 (Ng Eu Jinn)

Photos were taken during the 2015 Kelantan flood relief. It was the worst flood in so long and it hit Manek Urai badly. People are helpless as they don’t know how and where to start to rebuild their homes. NGOs and governments were stepping in to provide aid. It was good to see Malaysia come together to provide helping hands.

Judges’ comments

Thomas Phoon: This picture tells stories behind it, the natural disaster that destroyed the kampung, the kid’s home. The kid standing on the broken furniture and this kid’s expression make this photograph stand out. It expressed the mood of sadness in the whole picture. It also conveyed that this incident hurt people who suffered in the disaster, especially him. Colour grading also showed the mood of this disaster. 

Ian Teh: It is a very well-considered shot because in one image it describes the sense of loss, and you can tell not only by the child’s expression on his face, where he was slightly grimacing, but also interestingly, his body posture tells a lot in the story. From the way his arms and his body are placed, and the way he is looking outside of the frame, you can imagine the scene of destruction. But also within the frame itself, the house or the kampung behind him, the trees and the bench he is standing on, and even the brick wall that you see in the left-hand corner, all these create a frame that frames him within a small space. Therefore, it kind of holds this whole picture together as well. So, it’s a skilful use of composition in the picture, but it also has a situation that the photographer has managed to capture. Also, the little details in the picture, not just the destruction but also little details of the home, from clothes, curtains, and elements, even the sofa, etc. They’re in the wrong place, they are outside of the indoors. One final thing is that the photographer, from the way he toned the picture, took considerations how he wanted his final image to look, without it being overdone.

Second Prize

TSUNAMI BALAK (Tan Kok Chaon)

一场被誉为“树桐海啸”的洪灾,让位于彭亨文冬县的双溪必得新村(Kampung Baru Sg Perdak) 这个平静纯朴的小村山河色变,满目疮痍。災后,村内一片脏乱,除了厚厚的泥浆,树桐、枝桠无处不在。屋子毁不成形。只有五六间民宅在收拾后可以继续居住,其余大部份屋子结构都被洪水及树桐摧毁。

A flood named “Timber Tsunami” struck a tranquil and simple village at Kampung Baru Sg. Perdak, Bentong District in Pahang, leaving that village with a scene of devastation. After the disaster, the village was a mess. Apart from the thick mud, tree trunks were scattered everywhere. The houses were ruined. There were only 5-6 houses in liveable condition after being cleaned up, and the remaining houses’ structures are destroyed by the massive flood.

Judges’ comments

Thomas Phoon: The main focus in my point of view is the motorbike. And when the wide lens is used, it emphasised the foreground, the woods in front being magnified. Most importantly, the motorbike that is going through the flood, shows that the flood has affected the normal lives of human beings (the people that are staying there). The destruction is very obvious in the picture. The message that is being conveyed by this picture is that “the flood has affected the normal lives of the people”.

Ian Teh: It is a very graphic shot, the photographer chose to use a wide lens in this context to accentuate the destruction. If the photographer had used a normal lens, it would still be a nice shot, but you would not feel the sense of the scale of destruction. Everything is on the same plane, although it’s in layers, you almost see it on the same plane, even though the bike and the flood, the trees are behind, further back. What I like about it is the kind of creative choice that the photographer has made to interpret the scene. The destruction was already there but they gave and added an element of interpretation to accentuate what was there, to dramatise the situation. The shot is quite simple like the motorbike is roughly somewhere around one-third of the image or close to the middle so it’s quite balanced. The bike being there has also provided a sense of scale, you can see how big and serious the destruction was. Usually, I don’t like a wide-angle lens as it distorts too much of the image, but in this situation, it’s not too bad. It even emphasises the houses that are crumbled and fallen in some way, so it is also a creative way of emphasising the destruction.

Third Prize

FLOOD DESTROY MY HOME (Lek Kah Meng)

Double hazard, floods, and the Covid-19 pandemic.

It was raining non-stop for a week, causing the water in Sungai Johor to overflow. Kota Tinggi is inevitably hit by the flood. A few residential areas in Kota Tinggi had been submerged in the flood. Tan Fu Rong in Taman Kuso is a flood victim, who is also a patient with chronic diseases. He was rescued by the rescue team and evacuated to a safe place.

This sudden flood happened without warning while the threats of Covid-19 were not yet overcome. The victims had to self-test for Covid-19. Only if the test result was negative, they were allowed to stay at the flood evacuation centre. With the help and love of all people,  the problems faced by the flood victims were solved.

Judges’ Comments

Thomas Phoon: The help that people need is being seen from this picture. This old man is a disabled man who needs help, and someone is providing him a helping hand. In the frame, we can see some people walking in the water, it’s a rescue operation but the human touch is there. When something happens, everyone is there to help even though it is a very tough time. Looking at the facial expression of this old uncle, he is looking in front, which means that he is looking forward to something, for hope, thinking of a better future since someone is helping and assisting him. I really like this picture because it is very touching from the old man’s expression.

Ian Teh: The expression on the man’s face, and there’s a sense of purpose, seeing out of the picture and going towards somewhere and he was being assisted. And what is interesting about this picture is you tend to read this picture, first you see him and helpers (the rescue operations), but when you pull back and look at the image again, you can actually see other elements as well, like the guy on the left holding a cane. You tend to read the image from left to right, then you see the guy again being helped. I like the arms of the left guy and then the old man and then you will see the connection from the shoulders to the body with another set of arms from the rescue operators that are helping him. Those actually replicated the pattern of the walking frame and the walking stick in a way, so it kind of created a pattern within the image. And then when moving over to the right, you will start seeing the people in the background and you will have some context about the scale, the places that are affected, and obviously any kind of media operations that are going on to report on what is going on, the drone that is there as well. It is well framed and showed something that the first two images don’t show, which is the rescue operation and what is going on, and another aspect of the disaster.

Consolation Prize 1

ASAHAN FLOOD (Abdul Hamid bin Abdullah)

The village Of Asahan near Bestari Jaya, Kuala Selangor was badly hit by floods in December 2021. Most houses were submerged in flood water and the villagers were transferred to relief centres. Household furniture, electrical appliances, clothing, etc were damaged including motorcycles and automobiles.

Consolation Prize 2

TSUNAMI BALAK (Tan Kok Chaon)

A flood named “Timber Tsunami” struck a tranquil and simple village at Kampung Baru Sg. Perdak, Bentong District in Pahang, leaving the village with a scene of devastation. After the disaster, the village was a mess. Apart from the thick mud, tree trunks were scattered everywhere. The houses were ruined. There were only 5-6 houses in liveable condition after being cleaned up, and the remaining houses’ structures are destroyed by the massive flood.

Consolation Prize 3

HUMANITY IN THE FLOOD (Lek Zi Yi)

Under the double blow of the epidemic and the flood, people still maintain a warm heart to help. They helped the elderly lady get off the boat and attached a chair to keep her from falling. They love to help others and let us see the kindness and advantages of human nature.

Consolation Prize 4

KELANTAN 2015 (Ng Eu Jinn)

Photos were taken during the 2015 Kelantan flood relief. It was the worst flood in so long and it hit Manek Urai badly. People are helpless as they don’t know how and where to start to rebuild their homes. NGOs and governments were stepping in to provide aid. It was good to see Malaysia come together to provide helping hands.

Consolation Prize 5

FLOOD ESCAPE WITH ANIMAL (Lek Zi Lin)

In 2021, there was a flood in Kota Tinggi Johor. The flood caused many residents to lose their money and home. So the flood is a thing that people are terrified of. The picture shows a boat with a man and four dogs. The man escapes from home with his lovely pets. So this man can survive this flood with his pets.

Consolation Prize 6

HELP FLOOD VICTIMS (Lek Zi Lin)

In 2021, there was a flood in Kota Tinggi Johor. The flood caused many residents to lose their money and home. So the flood is a thing that people are terrified of. The picture shows a volunteer helping an old man.

Consolation Prize 7

SURVIVE (Muhammad Solihin bin Ramli)

Life finds a way – Seeks to protect, restore and promote the sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, halt and reverse land degradation, combat desertification and stop biodiversity loss. We can all do our part to fight biodiversity loss on a personal level. How? By prioritising sustainable mobility and sustainable food, responsible consumption and recycling practices, reducing the small actions that pollute, helping to raise awareness of the smallest actions through environmental education, and ultimately supporting any action aimed at protecting biodiversity.

Consolation Prize 8

TSUNAMI BALAK (Tan Kok Chaon)

A flood named “Timber Tsunami” struck a tranquil and simple village at Kampung Baru Sg. Perdak, Bentong District in Pahang, leaving the village with a scene of devastation. After the disaster, the village was a mess. Apart from the thick mud, tree trunks were scattered everywhere. The houses were ruined. There were only 5-6 houses in liveable condition after being cleaned up, and the remaining houses’ structures are destroyed by the massive flood.

Consolation Prize 9

TSUNAMI BALAK (Tan Kok Chaon)

A flood named “Timber Tsunami” struck a tranquil and simple village at Kampung Baru Sg. Perdak, Bentong District in Pahang, leaving the village with a scene of devastation. After the disaster, the village was a mess. Apart from the thick mud, tree trunks were scattered everywhere. The houses were ruined. There were only 5-6 houses in liveable condition after being cleaned up, and the remaining houses’ structures are destroyed by the massive flood.

Consolation Prize 10

TSUNAMI BALAK (Tan Kok Chaon)

A flood named “Timber Tsunami” struck a tranquil and simple village at Kampung Baru Sg. Perdak, Bentong District in Pahang, leaving the village with a scene of devastation. After the disaster, the village was a mess. Apart from the thick mud, tree trunks were scattered everywhere. The houses were ruined. There were only 5-6 houses in liveable condition after being cleaned up, and the remaining houses’ structures are destroyed by the massive flood.

Consolation Prize 11

DISASTER_BENTONG (Mohd Zainal bin Zamzuri)

Longgokan barang hanyut termasuk sebuah kereta yang terbalik di Bentong.

A pile of drifted goods including a turned turtle car in Bentong.

Consolation Prize 12

DISASTER_SRI MUDA (Mohd Zainal bin Zamzuri)

Seorang mangsa banjir di Sri Muda sedang menunggu bantuan banjir oleh pihak berkuasa.

A flood victim in Sri Muda is waiting for help from the authorities.

Consolation Prize 13

FLOWING IN (Tan Xun)

The photo was taken at 2am, using a film camera. We have done everything we could to minimise the impact of the flood, like moving things up and blocking the door gap. But in the end, we can only witness the water slowly flowing in and rising up through our kitchen.

Consolation Prize 14

PASCA BANJIR 1 (Faizul Hisham bin Haji Mohd Dahalan)

Kesan daripada banjir yang disebabkan lebih dari 5 kepala air kebanyakannya berpunca dari kawasan Sungai Lui. Kerosakan dan kemusnahan harta benda yang sangat teruk dialami oleh penduduk sekitar Sungai Lui ke kawasan Sungai Serai.

Consolation Prize 15

UNITY IS STRENGTH (Lek Zi Yi)

People of all races were rescuing the flooded black sedan. Everyone worked together to push the car to escape the flood. Even though it was challenging, everyone still did not give up on saving the car from the flood.

Consolation Prize 16

AFTER FLOOD (Tan Ai Bee)

This is the first flood in Subang Jaya USJ 1 beside the Klang River. After the flood there is a big cleaning job, and the whole office is full of water.

Consolation Prize 17

ASAHAN FLOOD (Abdul Hamid bin Abdullah)

The village Of Asahan near Bestari Jaya, Kuala Selangor was badly hit by floods in December 2021. Most houses were submerged in flood water and the villagers were transferred to relief centres. Household furniture, electrical appliances, clothing etc. were damaged including motorcycles and automobiles.

Consolation Prize 18

DISASTER_BENTONG (Mohd Zainal bin Zamzuri)

Antara barang-barang yang tidak dapat diselamatkan termasuklah 1 set kamera di Bentong.

Among the items that could not be rescued included a set of cameras in Bentong.

Consolation Prize 19

LIFE GOES ON (Ng Chor Guan)

The bridge connecting the river Benus has been destroyed by the excessive debris flood in January 2022. The photo shows the local has constructed a temporary bamboo bridge for transporting the fruits.

Consolation Prize 20

KELANTAN 2015 (Ng Eu Jinn)

Photos were taken during the 2015 Kelantan flood relief. It was the worst flood after so long and it hit Manek Urai badly. People are helpless as they don’t know how and where to start to rebuild their homes. NGOs and governments were stepping in to provide aid. It was good to see Malaysia come together to provide helping hands.

Consolation Prize 21

FLASHFLOODS (Mohammad Faris Bin Mohd Noor Azmi)

The flooded areas include Jenderam Hilir, Kampung Sungai Buah, and Dengkil, while several other areas around Labu Lanjut have been flooded.

Consolation Prize 22

FLOOD 2021 (Lek Zi Lin)

In 2021, there was a flood in Kota Tinggi Johor. The flood caused many residents to lose their money and home. So the flood is a thing that people are terrified of. The picture shows a boat with a lot of passengers. The passengers are escaping from home, because their home is already full of water.

Consolation Prize 23

(Chang Chia Shin)

Consolation Prize 24

(Chang Chia Shin)

Consolation Prize 25

POWER OF NATURE (Lim Fang Yan)

The balance between development and preservation of the environment is always the issue. Any life or wealth might be overwhelmed by the disaster. Never underestimate the power of nature.

Consolation Prize 26

WARMTH ON BOAT (Lek Zi Yi)

The heavy rain and the high tide of the river caused the flooding. Floodwaters and occupants hit. Homes were trapped inside. Fortunately, the rescue of the ship allowed everyone to leave safely. Cyclists were protected like bodyguards. They protect the elderly and young children.

Consolation Prize 27

KELANTAN 2015 (Ng Eu Jinn)

Photos were taken during the 2015 Kelantan flood relief. It was the worst flood after so long and it hit Manek Urai badly. People are helpless as they don’t know how and where to start to rebuild their homes. NGOs and governments were stepping in to provide aid. It was good to see Malaysia come together to provide helping hands.

Consolation Prize 28

CLIMATE CHANGE (Mohammad Faris bin Mohd Noor Azmi)

Consolation Prize 29

FLOOD DESTROY MY HOME (Lek Kah Meng)

Double hazard, floods, and the Covid-19 pandemic.

It was raining non-stop for a week, causing the water in Sungai Johor to overflow. Kota Tinggi is inevitably hit by the flood. A few residential areas in Kota Tinggi had been submerged in the flood. Tan Fu Rong in Taman Kuso is a flood victim, who is also a patient with chronic diseases. He was rescued by the rescue team and evacuated to a safe place.

This sudden flood happened without warning while the threats of Covid-19 were not yet overcome. The victims had to self-test for Covid-19. Only if the test result was negative, they were allowed to stay at the flood evacuation centre. With the help and love of all people,  the problems faced by the flood victims were solved.

Consolation Prize 30

FLOOD DISASTER (Tan Ee Long)

The flood disaster that hit Taman Sri Nanding in this district also produced piles of bulk garbage, after the residents started cleaning their homes again.