Will Malaysia and Singapore fight over water?

Through his very popular blog, former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad hints at the unfairness of the current deal. He is quietly nudging the current government to demand a higher price for the water that the country is delivering to Singapore.

By Mong Palatino, UPI Asia.com

Due to its size and location, Singapore sources about half of its water supply from its neighbor Malaysia. It has two major water agreements with Malaysia.

The 1961 agreement provides for the selling of 350 million gallons of raw water daily at 3 Malaysian cents per 1,000 gallons. In return, Singapore had agreed to provide Johor, a Malaysian state near Singapore, with a daily supply of treated water at a price of 50 cents per 1,000 gallons. This agreement will end in 2011.

The 1962 agreement gave Singapore the right to draw water from Johor River. The agreement also guaranteed Johor with a daily supply of treated water from Singapore. This agreement is valid for 99 years.

Since the first water agreement will end in 2011, many are asking if Malaysia will renegotiate for a better deal. If Malaysia decides not to extend the water agreement, where will Singapore get its water supply? Will this issue drive a wedge between the two neighboring countries?

Through his very popular blog, former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad hints at the unfairness of the current deal. He is quietly nudging the current government to demand a higher price for the water that the country is delivering to Singapore. Here is an excerpt from his blog:

“2011 is not too far away. Have we thought about extending the 2011 treaty or not extending it or negotiating a new water supply agreement? Are we going to be charitable again and sell raw water at 3 cents per thousand gallons to our rich neighbor? Being charitable and not raising prickly issues is a good way to make friends. But what is the cost to the people of Malaysia?”

The sarcasm is evident. Mahathir is indirectly castigating the incumbent government for failing to raise the contentious provisions of the water deals with Singapore authorities.

As expected, Mahathir’s commentary elicited strong reactions in cyberspace. Several Malaysian netizens have joined Mahathir in pointing out the need to charge Singapore higher water rates to reflect current market prices. They deem it unacceptable that Malaysia is conducting a losing business by charging its customer “horrible” low prices. They describe the present water agreement as an unreasonable and ridiculous deal.

But there are also Malaysian bloggers who blame the Mahathir administration for the stalled negotiations between Singapore and Malaysia. They cite Mahathir’s “inability to compromise and impatience” with Singapore for the failure of the two parties to review the water agreements more than a decade ago.

This was also asserted by Singapore’s Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts, which published a primer in 2003 to clarify the issues surrounding the Malaysia-Singapore water agreements. In this primer, Singapore insisted that it had been fair in dealing with Malaysia regarding the water deals. Below is an excerpt from the primer:

“The water dispute is not about money but Singapore’s existence as a sovereign nation. The Water Agreements are part of the Separation Agreement which guarantees Singapore’s existence as an independent nation. If the terms of the Water Agreements can be changed by Malaysia at will, then Singapore’s independence too could be called into question. This is the root dispute.”

“The issue is not how much we pay, but how any price revision is decided upon. The Water Agreements contain specific provisions on when the price can be revised and how the revisions should be computed. Price revision cannot be at the whim and fancy of a particular party. If Malaysia can change the terms of agreements solemnly entered into at will, where is the sanctity of agreements? Any future agreement we enter into with Malaysia will have no value.”

The Singapore Ministry also emphasized that the payment for the raw water it buys from Malaysia is not cheap since the latter does not contribute a cent in building, maintaining, and upgrading water treatment facilities. The ministry asserted it is Malaysia that should be embarrassed since it sells the treated water supply to Malaysian consumers at exorbitant prices even though the Malaysian government has minimal investments in water facilities.

Perhaps anticipating that Malaysia might use the water deals to acquire political and other concessions from Singapore in the future, the prosperous city-state has been successfully adopting and developing new technologies in order to achieve water self-sufficiency. Singapore has developed NEWater – reclaimed and treated wastewater – and it recently constructed the biggest desalination plant in Asia.

Because Singapore has learned to recycle water, does this mean it can survive if Malaysia stops delivering water? Most likely Singapore needs to continue importing water from Malaysia. The immigrant population continues to rise in Singapore. The government has been aggressively encouraging its citizens to produce more babies. Singapore’s dependence on raw water from Malaysia will not decrease.

This means Malaysia and Singapore should immediately sit down and renew negotiations on the water agreement, which is about to expire. There is no need to spark an unnecessary war between two friendly countries.

Mong Palatino is an activist and politician from the Philippines. He is a member of Parliament representing the youth sector. He is also Southeast Asia Editor of Global Voices Online. He blogs at www.mongpalatino.com.