Expert: Penang may need to look at desalinating seawater

GEORGE TOWN: Penang should look into desalinating seawater for consumption as a way to secure its water sources, says resource expert Prof Dr Chan Ngai Weng.

“For Penang to become self-reliant, it has to plan well ahead to secure additional water sources,” he said, noting that talks with Kedah and Perak had not gone well on this.

“Based on negotiations and spats that have run for more than 10 years, it is highly unlikely that Kedah will change its stand or that Perak will suddenly agree to sell raw water,” said Prof Chan of Universiti Sains Malaysia.

He is also president of Water Watch Penang, an NGO formed in 1997 to help Penangites care for their water resources.

He stressed that Penang’s “weak link” was its reliance on Muda River for 80% of its water needs.

At the rate of Penang’s growth, he said even the state government had projected that Muda River’s supply would only suffice till 2025.

While the Sungai Perak Raw Water Transfer Scheme (SPRWTS) would provide water security until 2050, he said the reluctance of the Perak government to go ahead with the deal was costing Penang dearly.

Prof Chan believed that seawater desalination, though expensive, would be Penang’s best bet to ensure water security.

“Worldwide acceptance of desalination technologies have resulted in lowered costs to build and treat water at desalination plants.

“Since the 1960s, the cost of multi-stage flash distillation to desalinate seawater has decreased by about a factor of 10,” he said.

He highlighted an irony in Penang which, despite lacking its own freshwater resources, had among the lowest water tariffs nationwide.

And it also has almost the highest water usage per capita nationally.

Penang, for over the last decade, has tried hard to work with Kedah and Perak on the northern region’s water security but with little success.

The Kedah government wanted Penang to pay tens of millions of ringgit in exchange for Kedah’s preservation of its hundreds of thousands of hectares of jungle water catchment.

Kedah has also been mooting proposals to preserve its own water security along Muda River in ways that might reduce Penang’s ability to draw water from the river on its side of the river.

In March, Perak apologised to Penang for not being able to go for SPRWTS because studies showed that Perak did not have enough raw water for its own use.

Penang has been trying to collaborate with Perak to jointly build a water treatment plant to supply water to Penang and northern Perak.

Recent floods in Baling, Kedah, led to Muda River turning too murky and Sungai Dua Water Treatment Plant having to shut down.

This caused a water disruption for thousands of households in Penang.

In May, MPDT Capital Bhd announced its proposal to build a RM1bil desalination plant in Penang to produce 250 million litres per day (MLD) of potable water from seawater.

Penang guzzles down 945 million litres a day.

MPDT Capital chief executive officer Datuk Nik Zamri Abdul Majid said the company was proposing to set up the plant on a concrete deck above the sea near the Sultan Abdul Halim Mua’dzam Shah Bridge to make potable water from the sea for Penang Water Supply Corporation.

But state infrastructure committee chairman Zairil Khir Johari maintained that desalination would be Penang’s last resort.

“Our water tariff is too low to do desalination. We won’t be able to break even.

“For now, we are upgrading the Sungai Dua water treatment plant which is already awarded, followed by construction of a new treatment plant at Mengkuang Dam.

“We are also in the middle of exploring possibilities to build a new treatment plant in Bukit Panchor,” he said.

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