August 25, 2022 00:00 am +08
Water scarcity is increasingly becoming a global problem. Half of the world’s population could be living in areas facing water scarcity by as early as 2025, and 700 million people could be displaced because of intense water scarcity by 2030, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef).

Unfortunately, Malaysia faces this potential catastrophe as well. Based on the Water Resources Study for 2015 to 2050, the northern states of Perlis, Kedah and Penang are projected to experience a water shortage of 221 million to 246 million cubic metres (mcm). Selangor and Melaka could see water shortages of 1,000mcm and nearly 200mcm to 33mcm respectively.

There are multiple factors that contribute to this situation. Monash University School of Engineering associate professor Poh Phaik Eong identifies irresponsible human activities and lack of water catchment areas as the major culprits.

Poh says: “[This happens because] we have less coverage of vegetation such as plants, which have the ability to store water and release it slowly into the ground. If we reduce vegetation coverage, then, obviously, there’s no way for water to be captured.”

In addition, climate change will result in unpredictable weather patterns, so some areas may experience longer periods of drought. Subsequently, some water catchment areas may not be able to provide sufficient supply of water to communities.
Another challenge that the nation faces is poor drainage management systems in flash flood hotspots.

Poh gives an example of clogged drains at a night market that are caused by irresponsible hawkers who recklessly dump their waste. No additional number of alternative water tunnels will solve the problem of flooding until the drains are cleaned up.

Ultimately, she believes, strong policies and law enforcement — both in regulating businesses and changing public behaviour — are important in alleviating the problem. “This is a personal opinion: The law enforcers are not carrying out strict enforcement to prevent pollution from recurring. Illegal sites are still being set up and [the illegal players] discharging their wastewater into the drain.”

Proper wastewater recycling standards are needed, she adds.

Poh’s opinion is seconded by Professor Dr Zainura Zainon Noor, the Director of Universiti Teknologi Malaysia’s Research Institute for Sustainable Environment.

“A majority of these [water risks] are due to fragmented governance of water,” she says. “For instance, although federal agencies have some control over water — for example, the Department of Environment has control over the quality of water — and perhaps the overall policy direction, water resources, in general, are still under the authority of the state government.”

Zainura suggests having an integrated platform for both the federal and local governments to work together to ensure that water resources are properly managed.

Solutions to mitigate water scarcity

Beyond relying on dams and putting in huge investments to tackle water scarcity through infrastructure projects, Poh encourages wastewater recycling to be practised by businesses and the public in their individual capacities.

One solution is rainwater harvesting. Also known as rainwater catchment systems, the technology is built to collect and store rainwater for human use. Rainwater harvesting systems range from simple rain barrels to complex structures with pumps, tanks and purification systems to suit different needs.

Water collected from wastewater recycling solutions can be used for secondary activities such as car washing and flushing the toilet.

Based on a study by the Federation of Malaysian Consumers Associations (Fomca), Malaysians have the highest water consumption rate in Southeast Asia of 220 to 250 litres a day. An average consumer should need only 80 litres of water a day, including three litres for drinking purposes, according to Fomca.

Poh believes this bad habit is enabled by heavily subsidised water tariffs, causing people not to appreciate their water supply until a water cut occurs.
To combat this, she suggests that the government increase water tariffs and channel the subsidies to companies that offer wastewater recycling solutions, so it can be affordable enough for the public to install in their homes.

She also advocates for proactive measures to monitor the conditions of waterways in real time. Currently, there are stations placed along waterways to monitor water conditions, but the time duration between each measurement is long, she says.

Poh and her research team are currently developing the Buoy Scout, an unmanned service vehicle that can collect data of water conditions along a designated route and send it to a lab directly for evaluation.

From a business perspective, properties in Malaysia can opt to be certified by the Green Building Index (GBI). An assessed criteria is water efficiency, which can be achieved by rainwater harvesting, water recycling and water-saving fittings.

As at June 2019, there were about 500 GBI-certified local property projects.

For uncertified old shop lots, however, Poh suggests that business owners in the same building invest in a single, integrated wastewater recycling solution rather than purchase separate systems. “It’s also down to them to engage with experts to help them see what the wastewater recycling process is all about, which area requires a lot of water or how they can make that process more efficient and reduce water consumption,” she says.

Meanwhile, Zainura recommends that businesses adopt corporate water stewardship to reduce water risks.

“Becoming a water steward allows businesses to understand all their water-related risks — physical, reputational, financial and regulatory — and implement strategies to minimise those risks and promote the businesses’ long-term sustainability.”

Most people tend to forget that the food, energy and water nexus is highly interrelated. If water supply is disrupted, it will affect crops and energy, especially since Malaysia heavily relies on hydropower.

As property and infrastructure development is rapidly transforming landscapes, Poh recommends that society rely more on public transport and walking to reduce the need for road expansion, which results in more loss of vegetation and fewer water catchment areas.

She also suggests that the government look for intermediate solutions to mitigate water scarcity issues. “It’s important for us to really understand the consequences of each step that we take before we decide on going down that path. Otherwise, if developments are not properly planned, it will cause a lot of problems for the future generation.”

As an educator and researcher, Poh hopes to see more engagement between government agencies and think tanks, as well as a focus on solutions that will slow down the impact of climate change.