By Nina Muslim
KUALA LUMPUR (Bernama) -- Malaysia has abundant rainfall and water resources and yet it has suffered more water woes in one year than a desert country.
Since the beginning of the year, the Klang Valley has had its water supply disrupted almost every month due to various reasons, most commonly due to pollution in recent months.
Other parts of Malaysia have also seen water disruptions for the same reason, albeit not as often. Other reasons include maintenance and upgrading work, burst pipes and natural disasters.
Residents griped, accusing the government of incompetence and lax laws, enforcement and surveillance. Experts and activists have suggested various other methods and water sources for the government to consider to prevent this problem in the future.
For someone like me – who had lived in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a desert country where water disruptions are very rare, before moving back to Malaysia, a tropical country with plenty of water resources but constant problems with its water supply – the two countries’ water supplies are a juxtaposition that is hard to reconcile.
How is a country with a desert climate able to provide its residents with a consistent supply of water, while a country with plenty of rain and other water resources cannot?
Ironically, the answer lies within the question, according to Mariam Al Serkal, an editor at Gulf News who covers the water supply issue in the UAE.
Al Serkal said the country has had to be efficient at supplying water to its residents because of its scarcity. In other words, the scarcity of water in the region necessitates their investment in water supply.
“If we don't make sure the water supply is continuous, we’d be in trouble since there are few alternative sources. As it is such a precious commodity, government departments have to really place a heavy focus on it,” she said.
Like many other countries in the Middle East, the UAE uses desalination to treat seawater, its primary raw water source. According to the UAE government web portal, the country has a limited number of freshwater aquifers, most of which, Al Serkal said, have now dried up or are unusable.
Desalination is also very reliable in providing residents with clean water.
“Desalination is like a factory. It keeps on going, so the supply is endless. And they have the spending power to keep on producing clean water so there is no interruption there,” said Prof Dr Ghufran Redzwan, a water expert with the Institute of Biological Sciences at Universiti Malaya.
However, desalination is heavily power consumptive and expensive, and therefore not necessarily a suitable solution to Malaysia’s water woes.
For the UAE, which is a high-income country, a monthly water bill of Dh800 (Dh1 = RM1.13) for Al Serkal’s five-person household is considered “reasonable”.
When my husband and I lived in Dubai, our water bill cost around Dh100 monthly. That is a far cry from the RM6 monthly bill for my two-person household in Malaysia.
On top of that, desalination comes with its own set of problems.
A World Health Organisation paper published in August 2004 on desalination guidelines said the salt by-product of the desalination process is usually dumped back into the sea, thus affecting the salinity of the seawater and the marine ecosystem. Keep it up long enough and you get something akin to the Dead Sea.
So desalination is a bust: it’s too expensive and the effect it has on the environment is probably not worth it. What other options do we have?
Some have suggested using Malaysia’s groundwater reservoir as a raw water source for the system, but all agreed major adjustments were needed.
Ghufran said sourcing groundwater was not currently feasible as not enough was known about the available groundwater reservoir in the country.
”It’s something that we cannot see because it is underground. We have to do some prediction as it’s not readily available,” he said, describing it as a guessing game.
“We don’t really know how much of it there is.”
Some people and companies are already tapping into groundwater in Malaysia, but they are done via wells or a pipe and a pump.
No water company, save for Kelantan’s, is currently using nor has the infrastructure to source groundwater since it is easier and cheaper to use surface water such as rivers and streams. In addition, there must also be a system of surveilling and replenishing whatever groundwater is used to ensure soil integrity.
Sourcing groundwater for the masses also carries an initial high price tag although it becomes cheaper in the long run.
Ghufran is not convinced that the government or any company is willing to invest in the necessary framework.
”Relatively, it’s cheaper to build a new dam, rather than changing the piping system,” he said.
It seems we’re stuck with only using surface water as our raw water source for now. Worse, despite all the disruptions and the ensuing anger and complaints, Malaysia has shown little urgency in addressing the issue.
In the recently tabled Budget 2021, RM632 million was put aside for water infrastructure projects in rural areas. There was no mention of upgrading infrastructure to enable groundwater to be used as a source of water for the rest of Malaysia.
Although Environment and Water Minister Datuk Tuan Ibrahim Tuan Man told Parliament in August that there are plans to set aside some RM10 billion to improve the water supply network under the 12th Malaysia Plan and to put it all under one ministry, nothing is definite.
Economic analysts have also called on the government to make additional investments into Malaysia’s water infrastructure.
Pointing to Malaysia’s aging water pipes, Fitch Solutions Macro Research analyst James Su was quoted by a local daily as saying that there is a strong case for the government to make additional investments into Malaysia’s water infrastructure sector.
The Value of Water Campaign, spearheaded by the non-profit organisation US Water Alliance, touts the economic benefits of investing in improving water infrastructure, creating jobs for building and maintaining it, as well as attracting investors to set up businesses with a steady and reliable water supply.
Perhaps it is because we have plenty of water resources that we take it for granted, thinking it will always be there for us in some way or other.
There is no feeling of urgency when it comes to clean water. Water cuts are annoying but apparently have not been annoying enough for the public to pressure and the government to take action.
But with the rapid urbanisation and population growth in Malaysia, especially in the Klang Valley, water disruptions will likely only get worse without some big changes to the system. The fear is that by the time we feel desperate to upgrade and protect our water supply, the cost may be far more than we are willing to pay.
(This commentary reflects the views of the writer.)
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