Greater Kuala Lumpur is blessed with abundant rain. But its water supply strains with shortages, while its drainage struggles with too much water.
This is according to a global survey of 50 cities that put KL (and its surrounding areas) in 37th place, behind peers such as Singapore (22nd), Seoul (23rd), Tokyo (26th) and Hong Kong (30th).
The survey in question is the inaugural Sustainable Cities Water Index, prepared by global engineering and consultancy firm Arcadis, in partnership with Britain’s Centre for Economics and Business Research.
The index covers both the reliability of treated water supply as well as drainage and flood mitigation. It focuses solely on water to identify which city is harnessing its water assets for the greatest long term advantage. The information is derived from published government and private sector data.
Basically, the cities are ranked according to how they manage and maintain water, looking into resilience, efficiency and quality (each of those three factors is measured by a sub-index), according to John Batten, Arcadis’ Global Director of Water and Cities in an interview with The Star.
Water in KL can be a problem as there's often too little or too much water, and this is reflected in a poor resilience sub-index (a 43% score). The city is vulnerable to prolonged periods of dryness, when reservoir levels drop to dangerously low levels. This precarious situation happens even though KL usually receives at least 2,600 mm of rain annually.
On the flip side, the urban drainage system is overstrained during heavy downpours, leading to flash floods.
As KL is heavily reliant on surface water, it is also vulnerable to river pollution, where the bulk of raw water comes from. The pollution of nearby Sungai Langat, Sungai Semenyih and Sungai Selangor are recurring examples. Basically, the poor resilience sub-index shows that much needs to be done to make water supply more reliable.
Water in KL scores better in the efficiency sub-index (84%), which measures leakage of treated water, water tariff structures, service continuity, wastewater reuse, the extent of water billing or metering, drinking water quality, as well as sanitation.
It also did rather well (76%) in the quality sub-index, which looks at parameters such as drinking water, sanitation, treated wastewater, water-related diseases, water pollution, and protection of threatened freshwater species.
Floods and droughts
Overall, Asian cities still trail their western counterparts by some distance. European cities lead the way on the overall sustainability of their water systems and management, holding seven of the top ten places, with Rotterdam, Copenhagen and Amsterdam taking the top three rankings.
Meanwhile, poor sanitation and insufficient treatment of wastewater see many Asian cities near the bottom such as Manila (48th), Mumbai (49th) and New Delhi (50th).
The Cities Water Index is an expansion of Arcadis’ annual Sustainable Cities Index, which recently rated Kuala Lumpur as the 19th most “economically sustainable city” in the world.
“This report focuses solely on water to identify which city is harnessing its water assets for the greatest long term advantage,” said Batten.
“It is our hope that city leaders find this ranking to be a valuable tool in helping them to think of water as an opportunity and as a resource for economic development while also meeting the critical needs and safety of their residents and the environment.”
“They still think (only) of providing clean water supply. This has been the classic approach to water. But we are trying to drive the discussion to another level,” he added.
Overall, water in KL is reasonably good in the efficiency sub-index, receiving high marks in the “water charges” and “access to drinking water”.
“However there are still major issues in the city, and it has lots of opportunity to improve, particularly in disaster management (floods) related to intense rainfall,” said Batten, who also noted that there is no significant effort to reuse water.
The water supply situation in Selangor, Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya were badly impacted by the hot and dry El Nino phenomenon. Many reservoirs dipped to alarming levels, while water treatment plants that depend on rivers reduced their output.
For Arcadis, resiliency, efficiency and quality are the three areas that summarises the state of a city’s water sustainability.
A city should be like a “sponge” – planned in such a way that there are lots of green areas where excessive rain can be absorbed (and, ideally, stored for reuse), instead of rushing off concrete or tarred surfaces straight into drains and river, which then overflow and cause floods.
After observing the intense downpours of KL, Batten remarked it can be more “sponge-like”.
“KL does pretty well in green spaces, but it is inadequate. The pace of urbanisation in KL has outstripped developments in water-related infrastructure,” said Batten, who added that it is time for the city to view stormwater as not just a liability, but as something to capture for reuse (during dry seasons).
In this regard, multipurpose infrastructure is the way to go in many heavily developed cities.
For example, New York is combating its vulnerability to coastal flooding with a barrier in southern Manhattan called The Dryline. The 12km-long barrier is not just a soulless concrete wall, but is one that incorporates ample space for parks, seating, cycling and skateboarding.
In Seoul, there is the 11km Cheong Gye Cheon project that served as a massive urban renewal project along a river (www.cheonggyecheon.or.kr).
Closer home, the Singapore River cleanup led to the creation of Marina Bay over 20 years. Now, the republic boasts of a very attractive city reservoir complete with an iconic garden (gardensbythebay.com.sg).
Thankfully, the ball is already rolling in Kuala Lumpur with the ongoing federal-funded River of Life project (myrol.my).
Cities need to effectively manage their water supply networks.
“These include reducing leakage, managing non-revenue water, recovering the cost of providing water, and the continuous provision of water. These kind of things help makes systems more efficient,” said Batten, who also pointed out that wastewater reuse, like in Singapore, holds great potential.
Increasingly, investors are looking at water supply resilience to decide whether to invest in a country. For example, Qatar had to satisfy FIFA that it has a sufficiently robust water storage system when it hosts the 2022 World Cup.
KL also has relatively high losses of income for treated water, as seen in Non-Revenue Water (NRW) figures. NRW refers to water lost in the network of pipelines between the waterworks and consumers as a result of leakage and other reasons such as water theft, old water meters, and so on. Singapore has lowered the rate to less than 5%, one of the lowest in the world, while Selangor’s figure is 32% (the country average is around 36%).
“Overall, cities need to make greater investment to improve their resilience to extreme weather events and unforeseen water shortages.
City leaders need to pay close attention to water sustainability in shaping their city’s future,” said Batten.
“No two cities are alike, each have their unique challenges and opportunities, but there are experiences to be shared between developed and developing countries. The risk posed by water is great, perhaps even more than famine, stock market fluctuations, terrorism, and so on,” he added.
Arcadis cautioned that the Water Index is not intended to be a report card or verdict on any city’s achievement.
“It is meant as a tool for city leaders for future improvement and long term water sustainability. Water is a resource for a city’s residents, environment and economic development.”