Asia’s next challenge lies in securing its water future — Kenth Hvid Nielsen

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DECEMBER 2 — Access to water is critical — it is a cause that needs no further legitimising. 

And yet, with basic hygiene measures of utmost priority during these challenging times, the pandemic has placed an unforgiving spotlight on the issue of water around the world, with each region and even countries facing their own unique challenges and landscapes when it comes to water security.

Here in Malaysia, we witnessed this first-hand how fragile water security can be. As a tropical country with abundant rainfall and rich water resources, in the Klang Valley, which is home to a quarter of Malaysians, the issue of dry taps was a perpetual problem. 

When treatment plants were recently forced to close due to the contamination of Sungai Selangor, close to a million were affected in Kuala Lumpur and Selangor. Before this, supply cuts were commonplace due to burst pipes and other contamination issues.

However, the need to strengthen resilience in water infrastructure is not just an isolated issue for Malaysia. Covid-19 has a profound and indiscriminate effect on all of Asia and the world, revealing the unique challenges and issues each country faces with water, from water disruptions in cities to inadequate water infrastructure in more rural and remote areas.

Access to water will soon be one of the leading indicators for social unrest in the developing world. Experts claim that one of the main consequences of the coronavirus pandemic may be social conflict — including the potential for violence in water-insecure cities.

To better prepare societies for future global health crises, we need to recognise the various water security issues and challenges different countries face, in order to understand what is the unique approach for us to undertake urgent action, with technology holding the key.

Accessing water in remote locations

For many staying in urban cities around the world, it is easy to take electricity for granted. Yet, for developing countries across South-east Asia, many rural communities do not have electricity. 

This has a drastic impact on living standards, including access to clean water. Remote areas lack the infrastructure to generate enough power to transport water, demanding a system that is both efficient and sustainable.

Solar energy has been a game-changer to address this issue and power water pumping stations in such locations, allowing them to draw water from various sources to meet the needs of families and communities, while ensuring zero carbon footprint.

A case in point is the Kahiyangan village in Pulau Tomia in Indonesia, which grappled with water shortage for over 20 years. With low incomes, the villagers are not able to afford traditional water pumping systems powered by fossil fuel and supported by infrastructure. 

The Indonesian Ministry of Public Works, Directorate General of Cipta Karya of Southeast Sulawesi Province, was interested in a renewable solution to resolve the urgent water shortage issues faced by the Kahiyangan community on Pulau Tomia. 

To tackle this challenge, Grundfos worked with the ministry and local partners, and a system powered by 144 solar panels was installed in the village, which pumps water from the source into a water tank, providing clean water to around 1,000 people across two villages at zero operation cost. 

Another country facing a similar issue is Vietnam. Vietnam is also a country of water paradoxes — surrounded by rivers and canals forming the Mekong River, and yet it still lacks clean water, as its sources suffer from pollution of heavy metals, chemicals, and bacteria. 

Notably, Can Duoc, a rural district of Long An Province in the Mekong River Delta region of Vietnam, was facing the challenge of setting up a comprehensive water network that can meet the district’s needs, where many people live in scattered communities across a large area. 

For 40 years, families in this rural district have been lacking in clean water. Grundfos worked with local partners to set up an innovative solar-powered water solution that has been instrumental in saving energy for the pumping station, resulting in lower operating costs for the investors — up to one-third of the electricity bill. 

The solution has served 3,000 households in Can Duoc, delivering safe water to the communities that most need them.  

Solar pumps have also been used in some wildlife reserves in India, to ensure that the watering holes have enough water for the animals. 

These systems ensure limited human presence in these reserves, further safeguarding and promoting the natural habitat and biodiversity.

Ensuring robust water infrastructure for cities

Water access is not just an issue for rural communities. Cities too face their own challenges as they rely heavily on centralised water infrastructure. 

In Malaysia, another key cause of disruptions includes burst pipes, with state-owned Air Selangor reporting 2,787 incidents in 2019 — resulting in almost 29 per cent of the water it supplied being lost before reaching the end user. 

We need to tackle the substantial non-revenue water (NRW) — water treated but “lost” to factors such as leaks or theft. Malaysia’s NRW rate averages at 35 per cent but jumps to 50 per cent in some northern states. 

Last year, Malaysia reported an average loss of 5,929 million litres of treated water per day. To put things into perspective, water demand in Selangor is at 3,316 million litres per day, while Johor is at 1,320 million litres per day. 

This has prompted the government’s focus on reducing NRW to 31 per cent by the end of the 11th Malaysia Plan (11MP).

To address this issue at its core, it is important to understand the challenge at hand. A key factor contributing to wear and tear in water pipes is excessive pressure, which comes from a constantly high-water supply. 

With digitalisation, water utilities can use technologies such as a water distribution system driven by demand, that intelligently adjusts water flow according to demand through the use of remote sensors. 

This reduces any excess water pressure, which in turn limits water leakages and losses, minimising cost and energy.

To date, this demand-driven distribution system has helped countless cities address this issue, such as tackling extensive leakage issues for a water authority in Malaysia while ensuring minimal disruption to citizens. It has also helped reduce water loss for the city of Ploiesti, Romania, by 150,000 cubic metres of water per year.

Such predictive and intuitive models enable innovation at a large scale and hold the potential to revolutionise the way water is sold, distributed and consumed. And the same goes for wastewater in terms of how it is collected, treated, recycled or and discharged. 

Building back better

Access to water is now a matter of life or death for millions amidst the growing pandemic. The cases mentioned above demonstrated that technology, paired with an in-depth understanding of the water security issue on the ground, has the power to ensure a sustainable water supply in both developed and emerging countries around the world, and support them in being better prepared for increased water usage during health crises such as the current Covid-19 pandemic.

In order to ensure true resilience in our water infrastructure, a number of considerations are at stake. Firstly, governments and policymakers need to consider opportunities to work with private sectors and local partners to ensure communities have resilient water access, sanitation, and hygiene systems.

Secondly, we need to implement water stewardship activities that address water quantity, quality, and accessibility — particularly in water-stressed regions — to contribute towards addressing the water crisis and to build long-term resiliency.

With these in mind, together, we can build back the world better, resilient, sustainable and stronger in the face of health crises of the future.

* Kenth Hvid Nielsen is General Manager of Grundfos Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand & Vietnam.

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

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