Malaysia and Singapore heading for a water divorce?

MARCH 10 — Water. A fundamental requirement for all life as we know it.

The human body, as any child knows, is over 60 per cent water. The average adult should drink two litres of water per day. 

Simply: No water, no life.

This very basic fact is a real problem because Singapore does not have enough water (by which I mean fresh water) to meet its requirements.

This is somewhat unsurprising as we are a very small island with no major bodies of natural water but today the population is nearing six million.

Our high level of industrialisation means we need lots and lots of water not just for people but for industry. Singapore, in fact, consumes in the region of 450 million gallons of water per day; a gallon is 4.5 litres so that’s a staggering amount, something like 300 Olympic-size swimming pools of water a day! 

Singapore has in fact long been water scarce and the solution has always been to import water from our big, water-rich brother Malaysia.

Long before independence, the British administration began pumping water from Johor to Singapore.

Of course, when the British administered both Singapore and Malaysia, it was easy for them to allocate resources.

When both Singapore and Malaysia gained independence from the British empire and then separated from each other in 1965 there was a problem; tiny Singapore was reliant on Malaysia for its water.

Fortunately for Singapore agreements had been signed in 1961 and 1962 guaranteeing Singapore an adequate supply of water from Johor. 

The 1961 Agreement allowed Singapore to draw 86 million gallons per day from various reservoirs in Johor until 2011 and the 1962 Agreement gave Singapore the right to draw 250 million gallons per day from the Johor River until 2062.

Both these agreements fixed the price Singapore would pay for water: 3 Malaysian sen for every 1,000 gallons drawn. 

So essential were these water agreements to Singapore that they were registered with the United Nations upon Singapore’s final separation from Malaysia as part of the Separation Agreement.

Both countries, therefore, are obliged to abide by the terms of the water treaties under international law.

This would seem like an elegant and final solution to Singapore’s water woes but things are rarely that simple.

Initially things seemed to go smoothly with Singapore investing to maintain Johor’s reservoir and pipeline facilities. Singapore also began selling its treated water back to Johor at a fixed price of 50 cents per 1,000 gallons (this was also part of the 1962 Agreement). But things began to go wrong in the 90s. 

Malaysia, reeling from the 1998 financial crisis, needed money and the Singapore government said it was willing to help with a financial assistance and investment package.

As part of this package, Singapore was keen to extend its water agreements beyond the 2011 and 2062 deadlines

However, in the end Malaysia effectively declined to accept a comprehensive assistance package from Singapore. 

The two governments would continue to try and negotiate the water issue for the next few years.

Malaysia was keen for a price revision from the outdated 3 sen per 1,000 gallons and various numbers were suggested ranging from 60 sen per 1,000 gallons to as much as 6 ringgit — but the two sides never came to an agreement.

As negotiations stuttered, Singapore began massively and rapidly increasing its domestic water storage capacities — building reservoirs and de-salinisation plants.

In 2011, the 1961 Agreement allowing Singapore to draw 85 million gallons a day from reservoirs in Johor lapsed. Fortunately, Singapore was able to fall back on the 1962 Agreement which allowed the island to draw 250 million gallons per day until 2062. This amount, together with Singapore’s increased domestic production, was more than enough for our requirements.  

For several years after 2011, everything was quiet — Malaysia’s Najib administration didn’t push the water matter and the Johor government seemed happy with the status quo. So Singapore continued to pay 3 sen per 1,000 gallons for the water, 

However, Malaysia’s 2018 election brought Dr Mahathir Mohammed back to power and just weeks after his return to power, he described the 3 sen price paid to Singapore as manifestly ridiculous. 

Now, in all honesty, paying 3 sen for anything these days is fairly ludicrous but the Singapore government countered that this is a matter of law and principles. 

The 1962 Agreement is in force and can’t simply be revised. The Singapore government argues that if Malaysia is simply able to raise the price of water at will, Singapore will be left completely vulnerable to the whims of Malaysian politicians. 

Again, the argument makes sense. While 3 sen for water might seem like a steal for Singapore, this is an existential issue. Singapore today can only produce 50-60 per cent of its water requirements and therefore still needs water from Johor. 

The solution, therefore, is clearly for a new and durable water agreement. One that takes into account Singapore’s needs and the concern that Malaysia is giving away something of value for nothing,

But this means putting a price on the priceless — water. It’s been suggested that the price be pegged or linked to the cost of water produced by Singapore’s new desalinisation plants. 

This seems somewhat coherent but again if prices were pegged at 1-1, the price Singapore pays would leap from 3 sen to several rinngit per 1,000 gallons.

This would impact Singaporeans and Johoreans as Johor still imports treated water from Singapore.

It also seems manifestly unfair to price river water at the same rate as expensive desalinised sea water; so a compromise is needed.

If we don’t get a compromise, Malaysia and Singapore are headed not for a water war but for a water divorce as Singapore will pull out all the stops to achieve self-sufficiency.

This would mean expensive water for Singaporeans and also take away something Malaysians and Singaporeans share.

Personally, I like the fact that I drink 50 per cent Malaysian water — this ties us to the peninsula and our shared heritage.

As two neighbours who need to co-operate and grow together — if we can’t share water, how do we even start to build a relationship that allows us to thrive in the region and wider world.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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