Malaysia faces existential crisis, must act fast to prevent possible water supply catastrophe in coming years

Dry taps

Water may be the last thing that springs to mind when one thinks of national security.

Water security and national security are, however, intrinsically linked and Malaysian policymakers must act fast to prevent a water supply catastrophe from happening in the next few years.

National Water Services Commission (SPAN) chairman, Charles Santiago, believes that the government, as a whole, has not come to terms with the magnitude of the problem that Malaysians could be potentially facing.

“Malaysia needs to prepare for massive uncertainties (concerning water) in the future. It’s similar to building a naval ship and hoping against hope that you can use it at some point, if war breaks out. But you’ll never know when the war will happen,” said Santiago.

“Studies have shown that the magnitude of the uncertainty is very real and it is going to come back to bite us in a very big way. By the time we realise that something has to be done, it will be too late, and much costlier to resolve.”

As of 2020, the government said that the average Malaysian water consumption was 219 litres per day. The government had then said that it aimed to reduce water consumption to 180 litres per person per day by 2025.

As of 2020, the water demand in Malaysia was approximately 53 per cent for domestic and industrial usage, while the remaining 47 per cent was for agriculture. The National Resource Water Study (2000-2050) predicts that by 2050, the demand in Malaysia will increase by 103 per cent for domestic and industrial usage, and the agricultural sector.

Santiago recently said that the government needed to invest some RM30 billion over the next three years to regulate the water industry as a way of responding to the global climate emergency.

Rising temperatures and unpredictable weather can affect the availability and distribution of rainfall, river flows, and groundwater, which can lead to a further drop in water quality. In addition, more floods and severe droughts are also projected to happen, and this will result in changes in water availability, which will affect global health and food security.

Santiago, a former Klang MP, said Malaysia needs to move fast in the next three years to address an impending crisis.

The National Water Research Institute of Malaysia (NAHRIM), in a recent study, said that Malaysia will face droughts between 2030 and 2050. Not only will there be insufficient water supply affecting domestic use, businesses too, will suffer.

“2030 is less than five years to go. We need to start looking at water storage throughout the country. We must start identifying coastal reservoirs and off-river storage, and studies must be conducted to determine what’s best… but we must start,” he said.

Santiago noted that solutions concerning the water industry and water security have, for a long time, been ‘band-aid’ fixes in nature.

“Right now, things are done in a very ad hoc manner. We are only planning for the next one or two years. We need to plan for the next 10 to 15 years,” he said.

Santiago said budgets were also being channelled to upgrade sewerage, and water treatment plants. But while such upgrading works were necessary, other options must be explored to ensure continuous water supply, including reclaimed water.

“Reclaimed water is something very crucial. Other countries have gone far with this but we are at such an early stage,” said Santiago.

Noting that Singapore, a country limited in water resources, was way ahead compared to Malaysia in terms of water management, Santiago stressed that all is not lost as solutions are aplenty for Malaysia. It all boils down to having the political will to move in the right direction.

“Singapore has this notion that every drop of rain should be used in a certain way. However, we (Malaysia) do not look at it that way.”

“Most of our rainwater is run-off water. That’s part of the problem that we have,” he said.

Run-off occurs when there is more water than the land can absorb. The excess liquid flows across the surface of the land into nearby drains or ponds. Run-off can come from both natural processes and human activity. Run-off water is a major source of water pollution, as water that runs along the surface picks up waste, including sewage, chemicals, fertilisers, and other toxic substances.

“We need to start identifying areas where the industrial zones are based. We need to set up sewage treatment plants in these areas and pipe them to all the companies.

“Now, these industries are using potable drinking water for production. But they already have their recycling mechanism. As such, we need to start speaking to them and set a deadline for them to start using reclaimed water. But we must first provide the infrastructure (sewage treatment plants) for them, which could take up to two years to build.

Santiago noted that in Selangor, Indah Water Konsortium Sdn Bhd (IWK) and Pengurusan Air Selangor Sdn Bhd were already jointly managing and providing reclaimed water to certain manufacturers to augment the water services industry.

While water in Malaysia is a state matter, and the role of the Federal government may seem limited, Santiago said that the Federal government can come up with a national policy, and states “will toe the line”.

“The public too, must realise that water is just too important for us to play the fool with,” he said.

“Some may think that we don’t have any problems with water, as it has been raining, of late. But we must remember that rainwater is not used for drinking. Our sources of drinking water include supply from our rivers, and water from our dams. The water that’s flowing in front of your house, is just run-off water.”

“We will face a shortage, as some parts of Malaysia, which used to rain every other day, is now facing drought, and this shows us that something has already shifted,” Santiago said, stressing that Malaysia must invest in the right technologies and solutions now to ensure that we are prepared for the next 30 years.

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