Re-examining Malaysia’s water policy — Asher Lim

JULY 23 — The two unscheduled water cuts in Selangor in the span of four days highlight a water problem Malaysia has had for the longest time. Water cuts should not be a thing in Malaysia, not because we are aspiring to be a first world nation, but because of the water resources we have.

To put it into perspective, we have 189 river basins and receive on average almost 3,000mm of annual rainfall and we can access seawater easily. When it comes to water, Malaysia should have no shortage at all.

Yet, ask any Selangor or KL resident, water shortages have become such a common occurrence that people hardly bat an eyelid anymore. Sure, residents would complain and grumble, but as soon as the taps start running again, all would soon be forgotten until the next recurrence.

We have a water problem. It is time to take the bull by its horns and do everything we can to prevent a “next time.” Water security is a term most Malaysians are unfamiliar with. However, this is not the case for our neighbours across the Causeway.We should take a leaf out of Singapore’s “Four National Taps” when it comes to improving our water security.

Malaysians get their water mainly from the rivers. However, as evidenced by Syabas’srecent woes, we can see where the problem is. Our reliance on rivers would mean that anything unforeseen, such as the two pollution cases or war and sabotage, would leave millions of people as well as various industries without water. We must diversify our water sources.

Firstly, we should look into our stormwater management practices. With an annual 3,000mm rainfall, we generate a lot of runoff every time it rains. The runoff would run into the drains and sewers before being discharged into water bodies.

The problem is that we do not direct this source of water to treatment plants. Although the runoff would pick up a lot of pollutants from city pavements and the sewer systems, we can treat the water adequately for potable use.

Another huge source of water that is untapped in Malaysia is seawater. Malaysia has easy access to the South China Sea as well as the Straits of Malacca. Building desalination plants along the coast would certainly help alleviate water stress.

Singapore’s Tuas Desalination Plant has the capacity to generate 30 million gallons of water a day. Desalination while costly, nevertheless is one of the more viable options we can fallback on in times of emergency. On a day to day basis, desalinated water can be used for industrial purpose, thus relieving stress on our rivers.

Lastly, NEWater. A project headed by Kampar-born Olivia Lum, represents Singapore’s hope for water security post-2061 when the water agreement with Malaysia comes to an end. In a nutshell, NEWater turns wastewater (sewage) into safe, drinkable water.

While it is difficult to imagine a time Malaysia would need to turn to such sources for her water needs, it shows just how far ahead Singapore is when it comes to water security. NEWater shows us that there are creative ways for us to get water sustainably from alternative sources.

Admittedly, the literature available on water management in Malaysia is almost non-existent. However, now is the time to make sweeping changes to our water policy. We cannot continue with our pattern of reacting to water problems.

Rather, we need to start pre-empting and prepare for an increasingly uncertain future. Climate change, extreme weather, major pollution and war could destroy our current water supply. It is befitting to end with my translation (hopefully worthy of a Datuk) of this Malay proverb: It is too late when “rice already becomes porridge.”

* Asher Lim Wei Liang is an undergraduate student studying economics and politics at the University of London.

** This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.