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WORLD WATER DAY 2020: WATER AND CLIMATE CHANGE

LETTER TO EDITOR

Date: 22 March 2020

WORLD WATER DAY 2020: WATER AND CLIMATE CHANGE

World Water Day is celebrated every 22nd March. It is to mark the importance of water to human civilisation and the nature. This year's World Water Day focuses on ‘Water and Climate Change’. This is a very pertinent topic this year as the world is combating Covid-19 spread. The key to fight this virus spread is via good self hygiene and washing hands. This only can be achieved if there is sufficient water supply.

Over the years, we have noticed how weather pattern changes have impacted rainfall pattern causing massive floods or drought as well as desertification globally. Many modeling of water resources are actually showing extremes of flood or drought as a result of climate change. Natural raw water availability is already a threat to human civilisation.

In some cases, groundwater is used to substitute lack of surface water (rivers and lakes). Groundwater still needs to be recharged via rainfall or glacier (those areas that has snow). Over extraction of groundwater affect the environment severely and further plunging us into chaos, uncertainty or even drastic moves. For example, Indonesia has decided to move its administration capital Jakarta to another location in Kalimantan (part of Borneo Island) mainly due to Jakarta’s land subsidence problem. This is related to over extraction of groundwater.

While availability of raw water via water cycle becomes a hot debate, we have 2 main threats creeping in fast. Water pollution and urban-rural population imbalance are real problems that every government will have to face while cherry picking solutions to mitigate and adapt.

Pollution

In 2017, Malaysia utilised 18,375 MLD (million litres per day) raw water to produce treated water. This data may have been higher because Selangor, Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya had suppressed demand increase due to insufficient treated water to meet rising demand. Based on data from Suruhanjaya Perkhidmatan Air Negara (SPAN), in 2019 more than 300 times water treatment plants were shutdown mainly in Peninsular Malaysia due to pollution. These shutdowns amount to more than 2700 hours loss of treated water production time.

Business entities are subjected to environmental laws. For example, wastewater discharge standard and there are prescribed waste that must be processes in the entity’s own facility. In order to save cost and increase profit, some chose to release these harmful chemicals to the drainage or rivers. In 2019, these culprits also used sewerage system to dump their wastes. That caused a week long water supply disruption.

While we are facing serious risks from climate change and investing in huge infrastructure projects to meet the rising demand for treated water, pollution incidents basically paralyse the system and cause unscheduled treated water disruption. This disruptions will be aggravated if the affected treatment plants are supplying to low reserve margin areas. That is why, many Klang Valley areas faces slow supply recovery after a disruption (both scheduled and unscheduled). When reserve margin is low, treated water have to fill up all the service reservoirs, meet existing demand, panic consumption as well as Non-Revenue Water (NRW) which is part of the treated water supply system. Many states will face this if we are not prepared.

Urban – Rural Population Imbalance

According to Department of Statistics Malaysia, urbanisation in Malaysia was at 34.2% in 1980 and it increased to 50.7% in 1991. By year 2000 the urbanisation was at 62.0% and it was projected that in 2020 we will have about 72% urbanisation. Therefore, these urban settings will immediately become water stressed zones. When population density increases, the economic activities in urban settings will tend to rise. 2 decades ago, it was safe to say more than 2/3 of treated water is consumed by domestic consumers. Unfortunately, things have changed as in some states the non-domestic consumption of treated water has increased.

Due to such high water stress situation, to relieve it we will have to import treated water from far away locations. This infrastructure is translated as increase to water tariff and operation risk. For example, a pollution incident in Sg Selangor will leave almost 60% of raw water use in Klang Valley stopped. To reduce the risk, Langat 2 was built and now it is linked with water catchment risks that may affect raw water availability.

Increase in demand is just the first part of the problem linked to urbanisation. Used treated water will become wastewater. Therefore, due to high population density, the pollution loading in these locations have increased many folds compared to 1980s. Now, urbanisation becomes part of the pollution problem. For example, Sg Langat will be polluted due to Ammonia during dry season. The sources of ammonia includes sewerage and sullage (excluding human excrete).

Now, the third part of urbanisation problem is loss of virgin forest to make way for development, plantation and settlement. Loss of virgin forest will give direct impact to raw water availability. End of the day it brings us back to the water resource scarcity.

Moving Forward

Adaptation and mitigation methods to fight climate change will only work when we solve problems created by humans first. In almost 2 decades of my involvement in this field, most of the time the authorities like to implement cosmetic changes especially those that have cheap publicity avenue. Will the current government take up real changes including revamping and trimming down redundant agencies, improving enforcement, upgrading wastewater discharge standard and there are many more simple as well as cost effective ways to ensure Malaysia have water supply security. Will they?

Lastly, can you imagine a world in near future facing challenges far worse than Covid-19 and lacks basic supply of water to fight spread of disease? What will happen to the population if simple task like washing hands with soap will cause death because you do not have water supply to keep proper hygiene? In our point of view as a nation we have a lot of work to do!


Piarapakaran S.
President
Association of Water and Energy Research Malaysia

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 
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