The country relies on surface water, but much of it is being wasted through badly maintained and burst pipes.

AVOIDING CRISIS: In the face of climate change and an increasing demand from a growing population, the country must manage its water resources efficiently to prevent water scarcity, experts tell Suzanna Pillay and Audrey Vijaindren

IN four years, Selangor, Negri Sembilan, Johor, Pahang, Kelantan, Kedah, Sabah and Sarawak will face high water stress levels if we do not change the way we manage our water.

Although it is unlikely that the country will run out of water, the Association of Water and Energy Research (Awer) believes that if we continue with our current trend of logging and pollution, we will run out of good quality raw water by 2020.

“Are we willing to pay the price for treating heavily polluted water?” its president, S. Piarapakaran, asks.

“We need to accept that drought is part and parcel of our climate. In addition, a drastic increase in population and economic activity density make it harder to meet the increasing demand for treated and raw water.

“This is a major phenomenon in the world. Water resources are usually far away from demand zones with high population density. What we need to manage is the demand for water.”

Awer presented some of its findings and solutions to tackle these issues during the Finance Ministry’s Budget Focus Group meeting several weeks ago.

The association is hoping its suggestions will be adopted so that Malaysia can prepare for and tackle water issues.

“Water shortages happen because of low rainfall and the failure to protect water catchment areas,” Piarapakaran says, adding that some states allow water catchment areas to be converted into plantations.

“There are also cases where flood mitigation dams are used as raw water sources for water treatment plants, a purpose which they are not designed for.”

Other reasons for water shortages, he adds, include the shutting down of treatment plants because of pollution to their raw water sources.

“Our main problem is in managing our water sources. We have the tendency to convert water catchment areas into plantations. Oil palm and rubber trees may have green leaves, but they cannot function as a water catchment facility,” he says, citing Gemencheh Dam in Negri Sembilan as a good example of this.

Low rainfall and the conversion of water catchment areas into plantations have led to low water level at Gemencheh Dam in Negri Sembilan.

The dam, he adds, fails to function because its catchment area is converted into a plantation.

“A back pumping system costing more than RM30 million was constructed to pump murky water from Sungai Jelai to the dam.

“Murky water will cause higher siltation which, in turn, causes the dam to become shallow faster.

“Why should we pay for the failure of state governments to protect water catchment areas? The water catchment area for the Langat 2 Water Treatment Plant and Water Reticulation System in Selangor is facing the same problem.”

The failure to increase waste water discharge standards in tandem with development also causes water woes.

Piarapakaran says the Department of Environment must study waste water discharge standards based on pollution loading factors.

Centre for Environment, Technology and Development chairman Gurmit Singh describes the water management system in the country as “fragmented”.

“We are in this situation because we have badly managed our surface water resources. On top of that, we have the dichotomy between the federal and state governments.

“Most state governments have failed to protect and maintain their water catchment areas. This compromises and adversely affects our reservoirs and water supply. We rely on surface water, but much of it is being wasted through badly maintained and burst pipes.”

But, he says Malaysia has not reached the stage where it needs to resort to underground water sources.

Gurmit calls for more efficient irrigation practices, as this will mean more water for consumers.

He also suggests that industries be supplied with raw, not treated water.

“They do not need high-quality water because they mainly use it for cooling purposes.”

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