Governance for water security in Penang

I NOTE with great concern the Penang Chief Minister's call for a 20% reduction in domestic water consumption in Penang, "CM calls on Penangites to cut water usage by 20% to preserve dam levels" (The Star, May 21; online at

This is vastly inadequate in several major ways.

Firstly, all sectors, including industries and the government, must be included so that the impact of the reduction is borne across the board.

Secondly, the reduction of 20% is way too low. The current water consumption of 307 LCD (litres/capita/day) in Penang is 86% over the level of the 165 LCD recommended by the World Health Organisation. The effective reduction should be 40% over a period of five years. Ultimately, the optimal reduction should be 80%, and achievable within 10 years.

Thirdly, the predicted global climate change (GCC) and sea level rise (SLR) will lead to more intense and extreme droughts and floods. Thus, a temporary 20% reduction is far from adequate to prepare Penang to face natural disasters associated with climate change in the future.

Fourthly, it is noted that Penang Island has very limited groundwater, unlike Miami and the Greater Everglades in south Florida. My colleagues in USM and I conducted collaborative research for the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) in south Florida over the past two decades. CERP concluded that GCC and SLR will impair groundwater, alter coastal wetlands functions and

structures, compromise mangrove ecosystem services and will pose further stress to groundwater supply and crop production.

Back-to-nature restorations should be integrated with hard engineering approaches. Coastal wetlands, including mangroves, have the capacity to absorb the adverse impacts of extreme floods and droughts.

The CERP conclusions are applicable to Penang, as reported in Chapters 5 and 8 of my recent book on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals published by World Scientific Singapore. Further research is warranted, however.

The Penang state government must therefore initiate and sustain a concerted long-term programme, taking the CERP as a conceptual model, to achieve long-term water resilience and sustainability.

Approved by the US congress in 2000 with a budget of US$10bil, CERP aims to store excess run-off water during the rainy season in natural and man-made wetlands and release it in dry months.

Water resilience refers to the ability to achieve and maintain an acceptable level of water supply and demand via an inclusive governance structure.

Water sustainability is the state in which the water needs of the present population are met without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Both can be achieved by balancing the three pillars of sustainability, i.e. economic viability, environmental integrity and social equity across all sectors.

In the context of resilience and sustainability, this 20% reduction will compromise the ability of the future generations in Penang to achieve water security.

There is an urgent need for the state government to work towards resilient and sustainable water security through collaboration and partnership with other sectors, including academia, industry and the community. This multi-sector collaboration and partnerships could perhaps lead to the creation of a broad-based Penang institute for water security.

This institute could provide technical-social skills and training to enhance education on water sustainability, incorporate community contributions, and to enlist industrial partnership.

Creating this institute is essential in overcoming the current unsustainable water consumption and supply in Penang, and preparing the state to face the hazards and risks posed by climate change and sea level rise.



(The writer is a proponent for the practical application of research to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. The title of his book is “Ecological Modeling for Mitigating Environmental and Climate Shocks - Achieving the UNSDGs”.)

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