Fishermen cast their nets off Teluk Bandung in Santubong, Sarawak, in late evening. The haze, and hot, dry weather caused by the El Nino effect in Sarawak, has also hit fishermen’s catches. Pic by Nadim Bokhari

EL Nino is reported by the World Meteorological Organisation to have 60-88 per cent likelihood to be fully established between now and December.

As this phenomenon looms, the nation faces important decisions to prepare for any adverse impacts it may bring to our wellbeing such as water shortages, air pollution and food security. It is timely to reflect on our ability to perceive such risks with even greater sustainability challenges expected in the future.

While evidence on various sustainability challenges continue to mount, the accompanying measures and actions required are often not taken.

The recent water disruptions provide a case in point. In 2012, a report by the National Water Services Commission projected that demand for water will outstrip supply in Selangor, Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya if no actions are taken. As we now know, unfortunately, that projection became a reality.

Casting a wider lens at the complex myriad actors involved suggests that large parts of society, at least to a certain extent, contributed to the crisis.

Governing the water sector was wrought with institutional failures with responsibilities shared by a number of actors, often with competing objectives, resulting in unsuccessful attempts towards finding a common solution.

Industries continue to pollute rivers containing valuable water resources that end up in treatment plants. Households continue to consume unsustainably with 212 litres of water per person per day, above the 160 litres recommended by the World Health Organisation. Reports of vital water catchment zones suffering deforestation due to development projects continue to surface.

It questions whether society at large is equipped to deal with the unprecedented and systemic challenges we face in the 21st Century. Sustainability is characterised by complex interactions and trade-offs between socio-economic objectives and the need for environmental protection.

At its core, however, is a simple notion of having a long-term view of development that takes into consideration not only the livelihoods of this generation, but also future generations.

This phenomenon is not unique to Malaysia. When the Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change (IPCC), which consists of the top climate scientists in the world, stated that it is extremely likely (95 per cent certainty) that human influence has been the dominant cause of climate change, many sceptics focused on the uncertainty, rather than the probability of the statement being true.

Greater sustainability literacy, will firstly, require the recognition of scientific facts and expert knowledge. Leading figures including President Barack Obama has alluded to the danger of an anti-scientific sentiment prevailing.

At one end of the spectrum, large parts of society perceive sustainability science to be irrelevant, while on the other, some passionate activists decry the paralysis of analysis, wanting immediate action “on the ground”.

There are many reasons that can permeate a culture to be science-averse ranging from laziness to deeper structural and socio-cultural issues. With Malaysia ranking 52 out of 62 countries in the recent Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) which tested real world problem solving skills of our 15 year olds, efforts to understand this conundrum and enhance scientific literacy deserves special attention.

Secondly, there is a need to enrich the capacity and informational base. In the information age, quality science, knowledge and information is no longer exclusive and is becoming increasingly accessible. For example, renowned economist, Professor Jeffrey Sachs is offering free courses on sustainable development online through the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) where people from all walks of life can participate.

Thirdly, scientists must orient their research towards solving some of the greatest real world challenges. Last year, the Prime Minister launched the Science to Action (S2A) initiative which seeks to address this issue. Initiatives such as these are welcome towards increasing the relevance of science to society.

To deal with complex sustainability challenges, there is a need to transition to a knowledge-based society that can make collective decisions based on reason. In a social and political climate where emotions often trump science, sustainability issues need to be resolved through unbiased understanding and judgment. El Nino will provide a trial for further challenges we face in an increasingly uncertain future.