Human Writes: Malaysia must make water a priority

File photo from October 2020 of residents of Puchong Jaya, Selangor, queuing to collect water from a tank provided by the state's water management body, Air Selangor. — AZHAR MAHFOF/The Star

Three things are certain about life in Malaysia’s Klang Valley: death, taxes and never-ending water supply disruptions. So joked my friend Jason as another water cut began on Oct 19,2020.

This year, Klang Valley folk have had to suffer dry taps not once, but multiple times. We live in a tropical country, with abundant rainfall and rich water resources – how is this even possible?

The recent contamination of Sungai Selangor, which forced four treatment plants to close, affected more than a million accounts in Kuala Lumpur and Selangor. This comes on the heels of supply cuts due to burst pipes and cuts in September due to contamination from a factory, which affected seven million Klang Valley homes and businesses.

Water is a basic need. And yet in the Klang Valley, where a quarter of all Malaysians live, it’s a perpetual problem. We should do better; we’re not a third world country.

It is ridiculous that dumping waste in rivers is so easy. Critical areas for water supply should be protected and fenced off.

A buffer zone, 50m to 100m wide on both sides of the river, could be designated as a national security area, said former chairman of the National Water Services Commission Charles Santiago. He said other recommendations made in a draft proposal for a National River Protection agency include CCTVs, drones and even security forces in these areas.

Polluters should be slapped with large fines. But Santiago cautioned that even fines of RM1mil might not act as a deterrent. Instead, he said, companies should be compelled to have a scheduled waste management system, something that many do not have – thus the illegal dumping.

All this comes at a time when washing hands is so critical and movements are being restricted amidst rising Covid-19 cases. “Now people will have to move around looking for drinking water and food, since many will not be able to cook, ” said Santiago.

Polluted water costs money to treat and reduces available water. Some chemicals might not even be treatable. All factories sited upriver from where water is sourced need to be reviewed.

Water supply has been beset by other challenges, including soaring demand from the burgeoning Klang Valley population and constant encroachment by developers into water catchment areas. Development on hills has caused deterioration of water quality from sedimentation and water loss through soil erosion.

In the 1980s, Jabatan Belakan Air Selangor was reportedly turning over profits of tens of millions. Then came privatisation and a series of messy dealings. In 2013, a court heard one water supplier had no funds to replace pipes and was facing lawsuits for unpaid invoices – yet board level executives had been paid millions the previous year.

After some political tussling, the opposition Selangor state government began buying back concessions, with the last one paid for in 2018. Meanwhile, problems with efficiency and upgrading persisted, with thousands of annual cases of burst pipes.

Another issue is Selangor’s very low water reserve margin. Experts warn the state could face severe water shortages by 2025. On top of all this, global warming is set to bring warmer temperatures, dry spells and extreme weather. In 1998, a severe water crisis and drought from El Nino led to three million people suffering water rationing for 150 days.

Inevitably, Malaysia has to work on water conservation. We need to tackle the substantial “non-revenue water” (NRW) – water treated but “lost” mostly to leaks or theft – which averages at 35% but jumps to 50% in some northern states. This requires investing in new pipes.

In agriculture, which accounts for nearly 70% of water consumption, irrigation efficiency – often at only 50% – must be improved and irrigated water recycled.

The government aims to get Malaysians to reduce water consumption by 2025. Our current usage is high at 219 litres per person a day (the recommended rate is 160 litres). Some have called for higher tariffs. People need to be know that supplying water costs money – it is not free or limitless – and be given practical conservation options.

Our water woes are essentially down to poor management. It’s a similar situation with other utilities. The energy sector is saddled with bad deals that serve neither the nation nor the environment. All too often, privatisation has allowed rent-seeking and crony concessionaires.

We need one central authority, backed by law, to efficiently manage our water resources, prioritise public interest and promote accountability. Water is so essential for life. It has to be a top priority.

Human Writes columnist Mangai Balasegaram writes mostly on health but also delves into anything on being human. She has worked with international public health bodies and has a Masters in public health. Write to her at The views expressed here are entirely the writer's own.

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