Water services industry: Malaysia must map out future threats, to prevent possible water crisis

While the nation is still finding ways to deal with food security, our water services industry is another area that requires immediate focus and should be made into a national agenda.

Water services include water treatment, water supply, and sewerage.

Twentytwo13 spoke to Association of Water and Energy Research Malaysia president, S. Piarapakaran, to find out the current problems faced by the water industry and what needs to be done to ensure the nation does not face severe water supply catastrophes in the coming years.

How is the global climate change affecting Malaysia’s water industry?

Piarapakaran: The fundamental issue about climate change and its impact is what is the percentage of the (climate) change affecting our day-to-day operations. This is the most important thing we need to establish. In December 2021, there were floods on the West Coast of the peninsula, but a few months earlier, the minister in charge then (Environment and Water Minister Tuan Ibrahim Tuan Man) had said that climate change did not impact us. But when the floods happened, climate change was cited as the main reason. What about deforestation?

How does deforestation affect our water supply?

Piarapakaran: Physically, we are removing flood mitigation and water resources storage. As we go into more rampant deforestation, we will see river levels getting lower and lower. With more deforestation, after the rainy season, we have wet flow, so we have all the rainwater, and surface run-off filling up rivers and causing floods and all sorts of damage. This is where our dams get filled up. But when the dry season comes, it is the groundwater and some of the rain that falls in the forested area that will keep the river base flowing at a certain level. As such, we cannot put the blame entirely on climate change. Human activity in the forest changes the forest cover, and it will come back to haunt us, either through floods, or the dry season. It’s a very basic issue.

Are we not understanding the fundamentals and how they affect the ecosystem?

Piarapakaran: Recently, we had one minister (Natural Resources, Environment and Climate Change Minister Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad) saying in-situ leaching in Hulu Perak was a success, and the ministry had proposed to develop a new in-situ leaching pilot project for the mining of non-radioactive rare earth elements in permanent forest areas. If you only know so much about the technology, how can you say it is successful? I have worked on absorption and the removal of heavy metal … it’s not that simple. When you remove something from its natural equilibrium, you are essentially disturbing it. If you don’t disturb the topsoil, it does not mean you are not disturbing the ecosystem. Because the ecosystem involves what is on top, and what is at the bottom.

Who’s to blame?

Piarapakaran: If you look at our education system, these are topics that are at the back of our Science and Biology books. There are long-winded explanations and most of the teachers do not go through them. But those from the field, we see it differently. When you remove the forest, floods will happen. There will be landslides. When it’s the dry season, the water level will drop very low. We raised this with the government many years ago. For as long as we do not realise this, we will keep on saying that these things are not happening.

What seems to be the problem?

Piarapakaran: When it comes to engineering, when we are looking at building a dam for storage, or a treatment plant, we will look at the natural conditions of the forest. We look at what is available now with so much forest, including the amount of rainfall, and we will build a dam that can hold water for three to four months when the dry season kicks in. But along the way, someone decides, in addition to having green trees, why not plant papaya or palm oil in the forest? When you change the surface or the natural conditions of the place, you are changing the entire impact of the project, because you are changing the surroundings.

It’s similar to flood mitigation – those building it will be looking at the surroundings, like the forested areas, the presence of rubber plantations, and villages nearby. But after 10 years, maybe the plantations are no longer viable and there will be more surface (area) that does not absorb water, which means more water will run-off to the rivers. When this happens, the flood mitigation project is deemed a failure, because it was designed to cater to the previous conditions. When the conditions change, and we do not address those changes, the next time the flood or dry season comes, it will get much worse.

To a certain extent, it looks like stakeholders are addressing the water issue like it’s a seasonal problem, and we only react when a crisis happens. Your views, please?

Piarapakaran: There are so many solutions, and we have proposed them. If you look at the issue of non-revenue water (NRW), which has been reported since the 8th Malaysia Plan, one-third of our water is lost. There is no drive towards efficiency and we are not looking at maximising what we have. In Kedah, more than half of treated water is lost in the system. That’s crazy. The national water services industry restructuring initiatives started in 2008, yet some state governments refuse to implement them. They delayed for more than 10 years. When they are delayed, there is no proper infrastructure, maintenance, and repair work being carried out.

When your equipment is old, there will be more problems. But the blame is always on the tariffs. They claim that we have not increased the tariffs, and that’s why they cannot invest in newer equipment. Some states have not increased tariffs, but have improved their services because there is capital contribution injection from the Federal government through Pengurusan Aset Air Bhd, and some direct funding from the Federal government. So, infrastructure can be upgraded. We are simply not getting things done. When it comes to water, the restructuring, by now, is supposed to show dividends. But we are still struggling. While the idea was noble, we are complacent. If this continues, we are not going anywhere.

What is the solution to the problems we are facing to ensure that our water supply is not disrupted?

Piarapakaran: We need to address these issues together. We cannot just say ‘I am going to address climate change, and climate change alone’. It (climate change) is probably something that is only 10 per cent of the problem. Some of our dams are running lower than their actual design capacity. So imagine, we are preparing, and operating our water services system based on systems and technologies that were state-of-the-art 20, 30, or even 50 years ago.

(National Water Services Commission (SPAN) chairman, Charles Santiago, recently said that 16 out of 55 dams in Peninsular Malaysia with drinking water function are more than 50 years old, and that their actual current operating capacity is not known, based on an audit conducted by SPAN).

But we now have a lot of new technologies like mapping, and satellite imaging, which can help us. These are things that we need to use to see where we stand. If we can gauge how prepared we are, and how bad things will be, then we can prepare accordingly.

What should be the priority of every state government right now when it comes to the water industry?

Piarapakaran: The most important thing we need to do in Malaysia for the next 10 years is we need to know how much raw water is available and who is consuming it. For example, how much is going to piped water? Because there is water that is also for agricultural use. We need to map this out and find out what are the ‘pocket’ problems. If we do not map out where we stand and what we are going to face, we are sitting ducks.

Is it high time for us to turn water into a national agenda?

Piarapakaran: Definitely. Industries come to Malaysia because we have the infrastructure, and some of our utilities are operating very well. But if industries face frequent water disruptions, this may cause them to leave. Some industries operate 24 hours a day, and you cannot expect them, or force them to have backup water supply for seven days. These are some of the things that the government needs to understand.

Energy services in the country have improved so much over the years. It’s time we give priority to water. We need to put in the effort. If not, as the weather gets more extreme, and we lose more forest cover, we are going to face more frequent water disruptions and at some point, the solutions will not be cheap.

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