ON the desert planet of Arrakis, water is so scarce that the people wear special suits that can absorb the body’s moisture, mainly sweat and urine, to be recycled into drinkable water. Fortunately, that planet is fictional (from the science fiction novel Dune by Frank Herbert). Yet, with all the water crises – droughts and unscheduled water disruptions – that we seem to be facing every year, especially those in the Klang Valley, one can’t help but wonder if we would need such body suits in the future.
Some might find it hard to believe but our country is actually blessed with a large quantity of water resources. We are fortunate that in terms of water, Malaysia is nowhere near the arid Arrakis.
Still, concerns about the country’s long-term water sustainability remains, and whether we are prepared to face water security challenges in the future.
In total, Malaysia has an estimated annual water resource of some 900 billion cubic metres. We have 189 river basins, and record an annual rainfall of 3,000mm. However, the Malaysian Environmental Quality Report 2016 found that out of 477 monitored rivers, only 47% of the rivers were found to be clean. The other 43% were found to be slightly polluted while 10% were polluted.
With climate change, population growth and increasing pollution, urgent steps must be taken to conserve our water resources to support the ecosystem and future generations.
Essentially, water security boils down to having enough quantity and quality of water.
In 2019, the Water, Land and Natural Resources Ministry commissioned a nationwide audit on the water industry in anticipation of longer droughts that the country would have to face due to climate change. The ministry was also studying the possibility of tapping underground water sources.
While Malaysia has an abundance of water resources, quality is a different issue, says water quality expert Dr Zaki Zainudin.
An area of concern is the ever-increasing pollution. The biggest contributors to pollutants in rivers are industries, sewage and pig waste, says Zaki.
There are five qualifications of water quality, with Class 1 being of the best quality and Class 5 being the most degraded.
“Class 1 water is very clear, high quality water. Class 2 water can be treated using conventional methods and used to supply our homes and so on. Class 3 needs extensive treatment, ” Zaki explains. When we talk about water security, we have to ensure that the uses of water matches these qualities of water.
“For drinking water, more than 90% of our water depends on rivers. Our supply comes from surface water, specifically rivers except in Kelantan which relies more on ground water compared to the other states, ” he says.
Overall, rivers provide about 98% of the water we use, with 70% of the water resources utilised by the agricultural industry.
In order for water to be used to supply homes, it needs to be processed in treatment plants. However, treatment plants have certain capabilities of treating water.
“The water that they take in cannot be more degraded than Class 2. In theory, treatment plants are not supposed to go beyond Class 2. Some treatment plants take in Class 3 because they have no choice as more and more rivers are becoming polluted, ” Zaki says.
It doesn’t help that water consumption in Malaysia is high. The National Water Services Commission (SPAN) reported that consumption per capita in Peninsular Malaysia and Labuan is at 230 litres per capita per day (LCD) in 2019. In comparison, the United Nations set the daily water requirement at 165 litres per person every day.’ The reserve margin – the difference between the production capacity of water treatment plants and the usage – for 2019 was at 12.9%. Apart from domestic consumption, we also have to deal with water wastage from faulty pipes and storage reservoir overflows.
Zaki believes Malaysia can do better in ensuring water security.
“Water disruptions have been happening in the Klang Valley, the epicentre of economic activity in the country. Water disruptions can be for many reasons; it can also be scheduled disruptions for maintenance. But what we’ve had are many unscheduled disruptions from several pollution events happening back to back, ” says Zaki, pointing to the illegal discharges of pollutants that caused treatment plants to shut down.
While he thinks the situation in Malaysia is still manageable, he says we should not wait for it to become worse before taking effective action.
As he puts it, when disruptions happen, it is not only consumers who are inconvenienced but businesses and critical sectors like healthcare are also affected.
Comprehensive laws needed
A major issue in water security that is often overlooked is the continued degradation of water quality over time due to the increase of pollution load, despite Malaysia having regulatory provisions in law that control pollution, says Zaki.
This shows there is something currently lacking in our laws.
Moving forward, Malaysia has to put more emphasis on total catchment protection and management.
Zaki observes that Malaysia has stepped up on enforcement, but it is the gap in law that needs to be addressed. For one, Malaysia does not set a limit on how much pollution load there can be in a river basin.
“Rivers have the ability to take in a certain amount of pollution without being impaired. But if you go beyond that threshold, then the river becomes polluted. Although we set limits on how much waste a factory can release into the river, we don’t have a threshold of the number of factories that can release waste into the river, ” he explains.
“Little by little, before you know it, there will be many sources of pollution coming in and the river will deteriorate.”
Instead of having a blanket legislation, Zaki proposes that Malaysia sets water quality targets and introduce loading control for rivers to make sure that rivers do not exceed a certain quality level – at worst it should only be Class 3.
“In my line, the biggest threat to water security is slow degradation. The purpose of the target is not just to improve water quality, but also to ensure that whatever rivers are clean right now stays clean years down the road, ” say Zaki, adding that the targets can be set by the state and translated to annual KPIs for each government agency with reporting mechanisms.
For a holistic approach to water security, Malaysia must also look into addressing contaminants of emerging concern (CECs).
“Recent advancements in science has shown that there are other pollutants that can affect water. These include endocrine disrupting chemicals which can mess up bodily functions or are carcinogenic.
“Developed nations are paying more attention to CECs but Malaysia is not giving them enough attention, ” says Zaki, who points to microplastics as one example of a CEC.
The Environment Quality Act 1974 is currently being reviewed to look at how Malaysia can improve enforcement against pollution. The government is looking into managing the total maximum daily load in rivers to control industrial discharges, says the Irrigation and Drainage Department (JPS).