We forgot water in the food security equation

Filepic/The Star

A CLOSER look at the Global Food Security Index (GFSI) 2020 shows how Malaysia’s water resources are significantly at risk, jeopardising the country's ability to improve self-sufficiency in food security. This is an outcome of Malaysia’s current economic practices, and the situation calls for better water resource protection and management, and, ultimately, the nationwide implementation of the circular economy.

As concisely put by The Economist, “water security is food security”, and “managing water resources shapes how we feed the world today and in the future”. In this regard, we should be worried. Malaysia scored “very weak” at a mere 18.5% in the “oceans, rivers and lakes” indicator, which is critically below the world average score of 60.4%.

Relatedly, Malaysia received a qualitative rating of zero for a sub-indicator on the risk of eutrophication, which is the enrichment of a body of water with nutrients, causing negative ecosystem changes such as depletion of aquatic life and worsening water quality.

Starting with rivers, eutrophication isn’t a surprising outcome given that the biggest contributor to the pollution of Malaysia’s rivers are pig farms and sewage treatment plants, both contributing to the highest pollutants in the form of biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) and suspended solids, according to a research paper by Chai Lee Goi published in the journal of Case Studies in Chemical and Environmental Engineering.

High BOD is usually a result of high organic waste. Aerobic decomposition of such organic material decreases dissolved oxygen (DO) and may release nutrients, which feeds the growth of algae and aquatic plants, which further decreases DO, resulting in the death of fish and marine animals, effectively reducing biodiversity.

The polluted water and reduced marine life are a triple whammy as they impact water, food, and ecological security simultaneously.

Under the “water” indicator, Malaysia scored 40%, which is considered borderline “weak” and well below the world average score of 60.4%. Pollution of rivers and lakes may have consequently led to Malaysia receiving the highest risk rating of 5 for the “agriculture water quality risk” indicator, against a world average risk rating of 3.3 – another zero score for us. As more and more rivers become polluted, Malaysia’s ability to produce food through its agriculture sector would be critically impacted given that 70% of the country’s water resources are for the agricultural industry, according to researchers.

Chai’s compiled data from the Malaysian Environmental Quality Report 2017 showed that more than half of Malaysia’s rivers cannot be categorised as clean, and that the percentage of clean rivers was declining. From a total of 477 supervised rivers, a total of 219 (46%) were considered clean, 207 (43%) were deemed to be slightly polluted, and 51 (11%) were categorised as polluted.

Malaysia also received a weak 37% sub-indicator score on marine diversity; while this is only slightly below the global average score, it is still a low score and could be attributed to extreme eutrophication of Malaysia’s rivers flowing into our oceans, perhaps compounded with unsustainable fishing practices on top of pollution, particularly from plastics.

In a 2019 study commissioned by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), Malaysia was reported to have the highest annual plastics use per capita at 16.78kg per person, ahead of China, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. The Race for Water foundation referenced a 2010 study by Jenna R. Jambeck that estimated Malaysia as the fifth biggest plastics polluter of the oceans globally, and eighth worst in the world in managing plastic waste.

So not only are our polluted rivers secreting eutrophication-causing pollutants and suspended solids but they are also spewing vast amounts of plastics into the ocean.

Water resource security issues due to increasing pollution are exacerbated by growing demand due to population growth, economic activities, and climate-change related changes in water supply. In fact, GFSI views Malaysia as having absolutely no safety net against climate change-related adaptation measures for food safety.

Malaysia received yet another zero rating for the sub-indicator of climate-change related measures in GFSI, which involves the development of and/or investments in “early warning measures” and “climate-smart” agriculture practices, which would in turn explain another zero rating for national agriculture adaptation policy, which is an assessment of a national climate change strategy which covers adaptation for agriculture and/or food security.

Therefore, it is clear that this goes beyond water security and water resource management. This calls for the internalisation and practice of the circular economy across all sectors to minimise waste and improve natural resource utilisation and resilience. And this will require a change in the economic system spanning technology, infrastructure, policies, regulations and enforcements, as well as society-wide awareness and participation.

Under the GFSI, Malaysia’s highest number of indicators that performed poorly compared with the best-performing countries in the Asia Pacific region are indicators under the dimension of “natural resource and resilience” (which is a dimension that is proving difficult for even well-performing countries), as elucidated by Datuk Dr Rais Hussin and Dr Margarita Peredaryenko in the letter “Macro outlook on Malaysia’s food security insecurities” (The Star, April 19).

In the context of water resources, circular economy practices should also be applied across all sectors, particularly the major polluting industries. Chai referenced data from a report released by the Department off Environment in 2018 which showed that manufacturing industries, agriculture-based industries, sewage treatment plants (STPs), pig farms and wet markets are the top five sources of pollution.

STPs may require technological upgrades to minimise the level of organic and suspended solid waste released into rivers. From the context of water resource security in relation to food security, the application of circular economy practices in agriculture and animal husbandry are necessary to reduce pollution in waterways.

Despite the complexities of supply chains, the circular economy and water security complement one another and are mutually beneficial. In fact, the French transnational company focusing on ecological transformation, Veolia, proposes an integrated water, waste and energy approach in the circular economy, whereby water is central to the equation.

For the plastics-related manufacturing industry, WWF released a report in September 2020 proposing the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) scheme for Malaysia as a policy tool to promote accountability among plastic products and packaging manufacturers for the end-of-life impacts of their products, which is a crucial step towards reducing plastic waste in the oceans, landfills and incinerators and, therefore, a necessary step towards a circular plastics economy.

Local agencies such as the Malaysian Green Technology Corp, which has proposed and supported EPR schemes before, should consider collaborations with organisations such as Circular Economy Asia, which has been pushing for projects such as “Waste-as-a-Resource” and the “Asian Plastics & Packaging Agreement” in Malaysia but which has not gained the traction it deserves.

The manufacturing industry should also embark on a circular metals economy, together with the metal and mineral mining industry, which is in line with Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin’s call for the sustainable development of the mineral industry when launching the National Mineral Industry Transformation Plan 2021-2030 on April 22.

In addition to being a central component of food security, our water resources are an important part of the ecology as a home to wildlife and they perform invaluable services such as micro-climate regulation, generation of hydroelectricity, flood mitigation, tourism and much more. It’s time to realise this is a serious national security issue that must be addressed with careful management alongside the application and enforcement of the circular economy across all sectors.


Head of Science & Technology

Emir Research

Note: Emir Research is an independent think tank focused on strategic policy recommendations.

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pollution , agriculture , circular economy


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