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Tuesday March 22, 2011

Malaysia faces looming water crisis

Malaysia, with an annual rainfall of 300cm (Saudi Arabia gets only 10cm a year), should not have a problem with water, right? Think again.

NOT many would believe that there is an impending water shortage in Malaysia, especially if they are Kuala Lumpur folks who are often caught in traffic jams caused by downpours. But if climate change alters the favourable rainfall pattern, we will have to come to terms with water rationing or other drastic water conservation measures.

Currently, Malaysians use an average of 226 litres of water per person daily, which is way above our South-East Asia neighbours. Singaporeans use 154 litres (and intend to lower it to 147 litres by 2020) while the Thais manage with 90 litres.

“A study showed that 70% of Malaysians use more than they should,’’ lamented Energy, Green Technology and Water Minister Datuk Seri Peter Chin Fah Kui last week. More depressing news? Seventy per cent of them do not intend to change their water usage habits, said the minister.

Under-valued commodity: Revellers having a splashing good time during a water festival, seemingly oblivious to the high cost of treating and distributing tap water.

“This is a sad reflection on the wasteful nature of consumers who do not practise sustainable water consumption.

“If Malaysians follow the recommended water usage, they can save up to 28.2cu.m per household, or RM18.33 a month,” said Chin, who added that the “recommended daily limit” for Malaysians is 165 litres per person, which means water use has to be reduced by 37%.

Most people do not know how much water they are using as the water bill is only a small component of their monthly household expenses.

In fact, some household water bills are less than the fixed monthly sewerage service charge of RM8 billed by Indah Water Konsortium. And thanks to the move by the current Selangor Government to provide the first 20cu.m of water free to households, landed property owners can pretty much toss their water bills aside.

Cheap water bills mean Malaysians do not bother to conserve water.

All of these beg the question: Why bother to save when water is such a low-value commodity here?

“For most Malaysians, the value of water is something they hardly ever think about unless, of course, they happen to be amongst the tens of thousands affected by the water crisis in 1998. This is mostly because water comes to us rather easily. All we have to do is turn on the tap.

“Water is also dirt cheap. So cheap that nobody pays any attention to saving it in the same way we would save electricity. In fact, the average Malaysian family’s water bill is only about 10% of its electricity bill,’’ said Dr Chan Ngai Weng, a geography professor at Universiti Sains Malaysia who is president of Water Watch Penang (waterwatch penang.org).

Assertions such as Chan’s, that water is under-priced, are surfacing ever more often.

The recently-established National Water Services Commision (SPAN) states the situation in no uncertain terms.

In its 2009 annual report, it said: “The investment in upgrading water services infrastructure is very capital-intensive with a long payback period. Unfortunately, the tariff imposed is lower than full cost recovery. In reality, the revenue collected by water services operator can barely cover total expenditure.

“The inability and reluctance to revise tariff has resulted in revenue that can only finance operating and maintenance cost.

“With the industry operating at below full cost recovery, it is imperative that the funding solution addresses not only the need to fund infrastructure development in the long run but must be sustainable.

“Full cost recovery means that tariff imposed is sufficient to meet both operational and capital expenditures without any Government or non-governmental support,’’ said SPAN (span.gov.my), which is now the approving authority for water tariff revisions in the country (except for Sabah and Sarawak).

Pricing water

With officialdom acknowledging the massive subsidies given to water consumers, the obvious step would be to revise tariffs to a reasonable and fair level.

However, politicians all over the world are averse to raising tariffs to reflect the incremental costs of producing treated water, to the detriment of consumers, the water infrastructure, and the physical environment.

According to Dr Chan, in 2009, the Penang Government subsidised domestic consumers to the tune of RM43.8mil, while trade/industrial consumers got RM740,000 in indirect aid, giving a grand total of RM44.56mil.

“It is beyond comprehension why the state government is so reluctant to review its ridiculously low water tariffs, despite the fact that market surveys by both Penang Water Supply Corp and Water Watch Penang indicate that the vast majority of water consumers are willing to pay for reasonable tariff increases.”

Inaction can also be found at the federal level. After years of talking about introducing water saving features in new housing developments, the Housing and Local Government Ministry failed to make it mandatory for developers to install dual-flush and low-volume cisterns (many models currently discharge nine litres with each flush).

This task now falls on SPAN, which is said to be in the final stages of drawing up legislation to compel developers to install reduced-volume cisterns (either a maximum of 4.5 or six litres per flush).

According to Datuk Syed Muhammad Shahabudin, chairman of Malaysian Water Partnership, while Malaysia is on track to achieve water supply targets as outlined in the Millennium Development Goals (un.org/millen- niumgoals), it is doing so in an unsustainable manner.

In his keynote address at last week’s 2nd Asia Pacific Regional Water Conference held in Subang Jaya, Selangor, he said that integrated water resource management was still not seen here.

“We have 11 Ministries, 14 states, and more than 150 local governments, each with their own priorities, agendas, assumptions, and sense of protectiveness. Getting all stakeholders together to share the same vision is a difficult undertaking.”

The various state governments are more preoccupied with managing supply, rather than systematically curbing or managing demand.

Nowhere is this clearer than in Selangor, which has to depend on Pahang very soon for raw water. The Selangor Government is forgoing RM132mil a year as a result of its 2008 electoral promise to give 20cu.m of water free to about 1.5 million households every month.

“This is totally ridiculous as Selangor is a state that is running out of water. It has already been forced to buy raw water from Pahang. It is ludicrous, to say the least, when the government gives free water or heavily subsidises water tariffs given the water scarcity and high amount of water wastage in the whole country,’’ said Dr Chan.

With the Pahang-Selangor interstate water transfer project expected to ensure water sufficiency for the Klang Valley only until 2025, one wonders what is in store for the region. Water shortage is not an unfounded projection. After all, rain does not fall constantly year-round; neither does it always fall evenly across all catchment areas.

In his welcome address at last week’s conference on water, Tan Sri Rozali Ismail, president of the Water Association of Selangor, Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya, said that an integrated way of looking at water cannot be avoided in view of rapid urbanisation.

“Dramatic population growth in Kuala Lumpur will need an upgraded system of water management and effective instruments to cater for increased population,” said Rozali.

According to SPAN, the way towards a sustainable future is by keeping development to a level that is within the carrying capacity of river basins while protecting and restoring the environment.

One noteworthy aspiration is “demand-side management”, which shifts the approach from merely supplying water to consumers, to controlling their demand for it.

This approach puts a grin on Dr Chan’s face, who has been advocating demand-side management as the truly sustainable way to ensure continuity of supply.

Many like him do not have to wait for long, if the Prime Minister’s latest statement on water is anything to go by.

In his speech at the conference, read out by Minister Chin, Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak said that water cannot be treated as though it were available in unlimited quantities and supplied at zero or low cost to consumers.

“We must not forget that when we turn on the tap, what comes out is not just water but a product which has value. Although we have plenty of water in Malaysia, clean water requires capital and investment.”

The lingering question is how water tariffs should be revised and Najib acknowledges that it is a fine line to walk.

“As with many cities around the world, water pricing has become a hotly debated topic at times. Needless to say, the cost of water services needs to be reasonable and linked to the amount of water consumed to encourage conservation. But the selection of a set of pricing mechanism is now somewhat difficult especially as it is being unnecessarily politicised. If only we understand that resources are not unlimited and that if we want services to be improved, at some point, we need to pay for it.”

Related Story:
Sustainable water management

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