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Revisiting Man-made Water Crisis

25th MARCH 2019

Revisiting Man-made Water Crisis

The panic we observe during annual dry season has its reason. Malfunction of responsible agencies has deteriorated public’s confidence to face even annual dry season. The East Coast floods during end of 2018 was not as severe as expected. This may hint us on possible el-Nino or el-Nino like condition repeating itself anytime soon. 2014 gave a glimpse of minor water crisis to all Malaysians. A fully formed el-Nino or situation where el-Nino is trying form will still give el-Nino like impact with different severity.

Drought or prolonged period without rain is part and parcel of our climate that causes low levels in our water dams and rivers which lead to shortage of water supply. Since early civilisations, humans have learnt to adapt by constructing dams, huge lake reservoirs and systematic irrigations. Based on data from Department of Statistics, in 2017 our population divide is 75.5% urban population and 24.5% rural population. This is a major phenomenon throughout the world. Water resources are usually far away from urban demand zones with high population density. Reduction of forest covers causes normal dry season unbearable. Fortunately, the advancement in technology and better demand side management will allow us to meet the increasing demand for water. It begins with protection of our water catchment areas from now on.

Water Catchment

These are areas where we are able to collect raw water from rainfall. Basic mathematics will prove to us that increase in population and economic activities equivalent to increase in demand for water (raw water and treated water). Based on 2017 data, Malaysia extracts 18.375 Billion litres per day of raw water for treated water supply alone. This does not include usage of raw water directly by industries and agricultural sector. Loss of forest cover decreases availability of good quality raw water. Raw water supply risks starts here. We are noticing continuous “raping” of forest for logging and development throughout Malaysia while some choose to highlight only hand picked states.

Malaysia needs a Centalised Water Management Power where raw water, treatment and supply of water as well as wastewater discharge must be placed under federal government and report directly to the Parliament of Malaysia. In a national level survey conducted by AWER (using Department of Statistic's sampling methodology), 72.86% of Malaysian supported AWER's suggestion to remove state governments' power to water resources and place it directly under Parliament (not federal ministry) if state governments fail to protect water catchment areas. The government must increase effort to develop Upstream, Midstream and Downstream Water Resources. Development of water resources in the midstream and downstream zones will reduce raw water stress.

Groundwater and Peat Fire

Groundwater recharge in Tropical Rainforest climate is via rainfall. With loss of forest cover, the recharge to groundwater also reduces dramatically. This also poses danger to peat soil. Drier peat soil can easily caught on fire and causes forest fire and haze. There have been proposals to increase groundwater extraction to substitute lack of fresh water due to failure of surface water management. Small extraction in large number of wells or tube wells and single large extraction project will pose immediate risk to water table (level of groundwater in the soil). Drop in water table in return will increase peat fires probability and frequency. Are we ready for this vicious cycle due to failure of the government agencies in managing water resources?

Non-Revenue Water (NRW)

The NRW level has been the same for the past few decades. Suruhanjaya Perkhidmatan Air Negara (SPAN) fixed 25% national NRW target by 2020 due to pressure from AWER. Even if SPAN officials stand upside down, they would not be able to reach this target by end of next year. The latest statistic shows that NRW in 2016 is 35.2% and increased to 35.3% in 2017. This shows that only about 64.7% of treated water reaches consumers and brings revenue to water services companies. Solutions to reduce NRW systematically and cost-effectively was already presented by AWER many years ago to relevant agencies. Unfortunately, the adopted solutions were abandoned along the way and NRW is still high.

Water Efficiency

The government must implement Mandatory Water Efficiency Labelling and Minimum Water Efficiency Standard (MWES) to achieve "static water efficiency". Via labelling mechanism, the government will enable consumers to be water efficient by purchasing faucets that reduces water usage but still delivers desired output. For example, water efficient water tap will be able to reduce water usage between 20% and 50% by introducing air bubbles which increases speed of washing soap as well. The MWES is similar to Minimum Energy Performance Standard (MEPS) which AWER successfully pushed Energy Commission to implement in 2014. Products which does not meet MEPS requirements will not be allowed to be sold in Malaysian market. Similarly, via MWES, we can implement similar restriction to prevent Malaysians from buying products that wastes water.

Pollution Reversal

Carrying capacities of our rivers are limited. During dry flow (water flow during dry season), the carrying capacity reduces and causes pollution incidents to spike. Due to increase in population and economic activity density as well as loss of forest cover, pollution loading to our rivers has increased over the past few decades. Effective wastewater discharge standard based on pollution loading will be able to assist in pollution reduction. By implementing this periodically, we will be able to increase the quality of raw water and making more rivers available as raw water for drinking purposes. A successful implementation will be able to show positive results between 5 to 10 years.

Malfunctioning Management

The single most treacherous factor that imposes highest risk to water security is the malfunction of government agencies in charge of water. The ministry officers (water and environment) along with SPAN and state water bodies basically failed to plan to manage water resources and usage effectively. This failure increases risk of water rationing, treatment plant shutdown as well as pollution incidents. This is not act of God. This is simply “Failure to plan is planning to fail” scenario. So far, nothing much has changed for the last decade. Is the Federal Government serious in managing water related crisis? If yes, start engaging stakeholders through real consultation process and implement the changes. Please also, flush the little Napoleons that are actually causing water crisis and water stress in Malaysia.

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