Shore up water security

The water level at the Air Itam Dam on Penang island has decreased to 30.3% on April 17, 2024. It is a matter of time before industries in Malaysia feel the brunt of water shortages, which could have a profound effect on the economy. — LIM BENG TATT/The Star

WATER security is still not on the priority list of many governments around the world. That needs to change.

A leaf should be drawn from what happened at India’s IT hub Bengaluru in March.

The city was brought to its knees by a water shortage. As a result, Bengaluru’s Silicon Valley title could be in jeopardy as productivity issues are hitting the major IT companies operating there, due to water disruptions impacting the daily lives of its workers.

Several factors contributed to Bengaluru’s water crisis, but a lack of raw water was a major factor.

In other words, it doesn’t matter how elaborate your water treatment plants and pipe networks are, if you don’t have the raw water to treat and pump out, it will be a big problem.

Climate change is making things worse with raw water collection in disarray. The problem is just as complex in Malaysia.

We have ageing dams and pipe networks. We have a massive non-revenue water (NRW) problem and poorly run state water operating companies.

According to some estimates, the country’s NRW loss was RM8bil between 2018 and 2022. The losses will continue if nothing changes.

Corruption is another problem. Industry players have for a long time lamented about rife corruption when it comes to procurement.

The state water operating companies have also been in economic turmoil — a number of them have massive debts, due to inefficiency and low tariffs.

Tariff increases have been allowed but it will take some of these operating companies a long time to restructure, settle their debts, be rid of bad practices and operate efficiently.

It is a matter of time before industries in Malaysia feel the brunt of water shortages which could have a profound effect on the economy.

And now with the country’s big plans to attract data centres, will there be enough water for them without jeopardising supply to others?

Interestingly in 2017, Johor announced a plan to recycle wastewater for industrial use, although little has been reported since. In any case, that is the way to go moving forward. Companies need to also reuse and recycle and conserve water.

National Water Services Commission (SPAN) chairman Charles Santiago has been championing the water cause for a while now. While some may deem him an alarmist, he is steadfast in his belief that if the country doesn’t up its game, we will feel the full brunt of a water crisis a few years down the road.

He has been calling for the water sector to be made a national security priority to strengthen the country’s water resources.

“Billions of ringgit are being spent by countries like Malaysia on defence. Yet not enough is going into water security. A good figure would be an allocation of at least RM10bil a year for the next few years, to boost our water infrastructure, taking into account climate change,” he says.

Malaysia has no dearth of great plans and there is one involving water.

In late 2022, the government launched the ambitious Water Sector Transformation 2040 (WST 2040) which not only aims to solve our water woes, but to also make the sector a money-spinner.

The goal is to make Malaysia a water hub by 2040. The elaborate plan talks about modernising our water sector, with the latest digital technologies among others. It will take a lot of political will to see this through.

One state going ahead with its water sector upgrades at top speed is Sarawak which is undertaking a massive RM1bil replacement exercise for old water pipes.

To be sure, it is coming from a low base. Sarawak has a poor water network and has one of the highest NRWs. Under its new leadership, it seems determined to fix these issues and has the money to do so.

Water will remain a key element in determining the success of a country and its economy.

This week, Kuala Lumpur will host the ASIAWATER 2024 Expo & Forum, where all matters related to water will be discussed. It is themed on water transformation and climate change, topics that are clearly relevant to Malaysia.

This article first appeared in Star Biz7 weekly edition.

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