DROUGHTS in Malaysia have become more common nowadays. Experts recently warned of another El Nino towards the end of 2017. Water shortage will again rear its ugly head. The 1998 water crisis serves as a grim reminder of the chaos created. Domestic water supplies were seriously interrupted. Rationing was unavoidable. Many industries suffered considerable losses. Droughts had also disrupted irrigation. Crop failures caused hardships to many farming families. Palm oil production will again suffer during times of water deficiencies.
It is ironic that Malaysia, blessed with 2,500mm rainfall annually, should experience water shortages. Population growth, urbanisation, industrialisation, and irrigated agriculture have all created the growing thirst for water. More water use has also led to rising incidence of water pollution. But critics claim past approaches towards management have been largely sectoral, and very much supply-driven. Future demands for water were mostly projected through unrealistic scenarios. The typical responses have been merely adding supply through new or upgraded infrastructure.
A case in point is the Klang river basin. Studies confirmed that surface water resources development there has reached a limit. So much so it became necessary to implement inter-basin transfers from the adjoining Langat and Selangor rivers, and more recently resorting to inter-state water transfers from Pahang to Selangor. Malaysia has yet to fully incorporate water demand strategies in managing its water resources. Alternate water resources, principally groundwater, remain under-exploited except for Kelantan which has for decades depended on it.
According to reports, Malaysia has formally adopted the Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) as the way to sustainably manage its water resources. The National Water Resources Council, established in 1998, has provided a forum for a holistic approach in the planning and management of water resources.
However, the implementation of IWRM to-date has been rather disappointing. This is largely due to the lack of effective mechanisms for inter-Ministry dialogue and for greater federal-state cooperation considering that ownership of waters rests with the states.
Water is essentially a finite and renewable resource. It is found in many places as part of the water cycle. Water is found in lakes and reservoirs, in flowing rivers and also as groundwater. Not to mention wastewater coming from industries or the households. Safe water is necessary for human consumption and to sustain life. Planning for water security therefore calls for a holistic approach. This includes both preventive and curative measures. Sources of water supply need not be limited to surface waters. Groundwater and even wastewater need to be explored for use. For greater utilisation efficiency, a combination of both supply and demand measures need to be undertaken while ensuring that all sources of water are not unduly degraded.
IWRM is akin to the current concept of the green economy. Sustainable solutions must be grounded on good science. Their strategic application should be driven by appropriate technologies. Hence, Continuous S&T knowledge acquisition and research is vital to understand the many processes related to the water environment. This is not only for assessing water and its ecosystem, but also in implementing the supply-side infrastructural development works, water and wastewater treatment facilities, and demand-side innovative technologies and practices. Adaptation measures to deal with the impacts of climate change need to be also addressed.
Water related research in Malaysia has been rather ad-hoc. With limited capacity and minimal funding, some research is being undertaken at the National Hydraulic Research Institute of Malaysia and at some Institutions of Higher Learning. S&T needs on water issues are multi-disciplinary and hence the focus should be on coordinated research. The Academy of Sciences Malaysia has an active Water Committee which has provided guidance to Malaysia’s water programme. It requires adequate funding and the deployment of appropriate human resources and it requires the implementation of a wide array of both preventive and curative measures involving multi-stakeholders. It is about “making water everyone’s business”.
PROF DATUK DR AHMAD IBRAHIM
Academy of Sciences Malaysia