Much ado about Malaysia’s water woes


WATER is our most precious natural resource, essential for sustaining life on Earth. We depend on water for everything, from food to clothing, business operations and so much more.

In nature, plants need water to survive and grow, whereas over 10% of all known animals and about 50% of all known fish species live in freshwater ecosystems – lakes, rivers, streams, wetlands and aquifers. Despite its critical role for people and nature, freshwater is a limited and finite resource. Of all the water on earth, just 3% is fresh water.

Malaysia is blessed with rainfall exceeding 3,000mm annually, contributing to an estimated 900bil cubic metres of annual water resources. Surface water sources, primarily rivers, account for approximately 97% of our raw water supply for agricultural, domestic and industrial uses.

However, even though we are a water-rich country, we continue to face water security issues due to rising demand and pressure on water resources caused by population growth, urbanisation, industrialisation and agriculture. These issues are further exacerbated by river pollution, excessive demand, climate change impacts and unsustainable land-use practices.

A river bank in Klang Valley littered with dredged out waste from the river. This is an example of a non-point source pollution. (Image by Nurul Afiqah Jamaludin/WWF-Malaysia)A river bank in Klang Valley littered with dredged out waste from the river. This is an example of a non-point source pollution. (Image by Nurul Afiqah Jamaludin/WWF-Malaysia)

Water provision, consumption and demand

In Malaysia, water is mostly sourced from rivers and processed in water treatment plants. The water undergoes several treatment processes that comply with the Health Ministry’s standards, then stored in service reservoirs. From there, a reticulation system helps to supply it to our homes, work premises, and wherever it is needed.

According to the Environment and Water Ministry, in 2020 Malaysians consumed on average 205 litres per day (l/day) of water, exceeding the World Health Organisation’s recommended 165l/day.

Air Selangor reported that domestic and industrial use accounts for 53% of water demand, while agriculture accounts for the remaining 47%. Meanwhile, the National Water Resource Study predicts that water demand in Malaysia will increase by 103% by 2050.

The current high water consumption is unsustainable in the long run, as we would need to extract more water and build more facilities such as dams and treatment plants. Low water tariffs due to heavy subsidisation lead to taking water supply for granted, which can discourage the prudent use of water. On the other hand, industrial and commercial entities, though subject to higher water tariffs than domestic use, require consistent and large amounts of high-quality water.

Access to clean water also remains an issue for many rural communities. As of 2020, 53% of Orang Asli communities still do not have piped water. To sustain themselves, they rely on any available water resources, such as streams, groundwater, or rainwater harvesting. In these situations, proper watershed management is crucial to ensure water resource availability.

Site excursion during a flood preparedness training with the local community where they were interviewed to gain localised information and database. (Image by Nurul Afiqah Jamaludin/WWF-Malaysia)Site excursion during a flood preparedness training with the local community where they were interviewed to gain localised information and database. (Image by Nurul Afiqah Jamaludin/WWF-Malaysia)

Water stress

Nowadays, water service disruptions, floods and river pollution are common issues in Malaysia. While scheduled water cuts are necessary for maintenance and repairs, it is the unscheduled disruptions, often caused by pollution, that cause major issues.

These can take longer to resolve, depending on how severely polluted the water source is. In such cases, treatment plants must shut down to maintain water quality standards and protect public health. River pollution comes from point or non-point (NPS) sources. Point source pollution is identifiable from a specific and single location like industrial discharge pipes, NPS pollution is derived from various sources such rainwater runoff from a night market that carries trash, food waste and oils into storm drains and nearby rivers.

Accounting for 70% of river pollution in Malaysia, NPS pollutions are more difficult to identify and regulate. The improper disposal of solid wastes including fats, oils and grease (FOG) also contributes significantly to the water pollution issue. FOG disposed of into sinks causes blockages, pipe bursts and overflows of raw sewage that end up in rivers.

When it comes to floods, factors causing them include climate change, incompatible land use, poor drainage management and pollution. With climate change, weather patterns have become erratic, causing more intense rainfall. Forests absorb rainfall and slowly release water over time via surface and groundwater flows. Deforestation in the upstream watersheds disrupts this natural process, which then causes an increased amount of water runoff. This can lead to floods in downstream areas, as seen in Baling, Kedah last year.

Journey of water (Infographic by WWF-Malaysia Freshwater Conservation Team)Journey of water (Infographic by WWF-Malaysia Freshwater Conservation Team)

Solving water woes

The current 12th Malaysia Plan (2020-2025), which complements the Water Sector Transformation 2040, incorporates strategies to address water resources issues. Among these strategies are nature-based solutions (NbS) to tackle challenges for climate adaptation and reduction of water-related disaster risks by leveraging ecosystem services. Possible NbS approaches include keeping river corridors intact, restoring vegetation via tree planting and developing urban gardens along river stretches to aid in flood mitigation.

Sustainable land use management is also important, with developments planned in harmony with rivers. Meanwhile, apart from contributing to the quality of life, green spaces in urban areas can also be retained for stormwater management and pollution buffering. Malaysians could also turn to rainwater harvesting to reduce water consumption and save money on water bills. Flood preparedness training can also help in addressing flood challenges among vulnerable communities.

It is vital that we continue to prioritise the conservation and management of water resources, to ensure the availability of safe and affordable water for generations to come.

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