Water crisis the price of populism

Kua Kia Soong, Free Malaysia Today

Malaysia’s water industry is in “dire straits”, so says the water, land and natural resources minister. The country is expected to see its water resources reduced by 20% to 25% between 2025 and 2030. The minister added that despite that looming threat, Malaysia’s water industry is not yet equipped to effectively address the water shortage. “However, it is difficult to meet this requirement as demand is outstripping supply.”

Oh, and why is demand outstripping supply, I wonder?

In 2014, after the Selangor government announced its free water policy, I wrote: “Free water is populism gone mad!”

As the minister and his department must know, the water crisis is by no means a new phenomenon. The Selangor government carried out its free water policy at a time when Selangor and other parts of the country were already experiencing critical water shortage. The justification for building the Sungai Selangor dam in 1999 was the alarmist call that prevailing water sources would run out by 2007.

What the minister and all Malaysians must address is: What is the root cause of this critically important problem? It is clear that poor analysis of the root cause in the past has led to serious environmental and socio-economic consequences.

Tell it to the Orang Asli at Kuala Kubu Bharu

In my 2014 article, I warned that free water is not like any other populist handout – there are dire consequences. The Orang Asli community at Kuala Kubu Bharu had to sacrifice their traditional ancestral homes in 1999 for the Sungai Selangor Dam because it was considered necessary to meet the water demands of the Klang Valley.

Selangor lost one of its most pristine white-water rafting sites that was acclaimed as world class. Since then, taxpayers have had to bear the cost of the dam through indirect taxation. The rising cost of living is but the result of uneconomic projects by the authorities, a burden we are paying for today.

Even if some Malaysians don’t care about the plight of the Orang Asli or the displacement of other indigenous peoples for dam projects, their own discomfort during any water shortages should be enough to warn them of the even worse catastrophe in the looming water crises to come. We have been warned that future wars will be fought over this increasingly scarce resource – water.

Need for water demand management

When water tariffs are too low (never mind free), consumers have no incentive to conserve water. The evidence and statistics on the water consumption rate of Malaysians speak for themselves. The current water shortage and looming water crisis brought about by population growth, deforestation of important watershed hills and erratic rain patterns should wake Malaysians up to the urgent need for water demand management.

During the campaign by SOS (Save Our Sungai) Selangor against the dam in 1999, we stressed the urgent need for water demand management, which includes targets set for per capita water use, and reductions in non-revenue water.

Malaysia is blessed with abundant rain water, yet we are the worst squanderers of this natural resource. We have many times more water than most African countries and yet we are facing a water shortage crisis. Malaysians are among the worst water wasters in the world, with a national average water consumption of 200 litres/capita/day when 20 to 30 litres of water per person per day is considered adequate for basic human needs. Urban Malaysians are worse – they use more than 500 litres/capita/day.

Besides a reasonable tariff to discourage wastage of water, a comprehensive water demand management policy would include changes to building by-laws, through subsidising the installation of water-saving devices in business and residential properties and through giving industry incentives to switch to water-efficient technologies, besides incentives to household consumers to conserve water.

Repiping and recycling the water network

The government has admitted that as much as 40% of piped water is lost through leakage and faulty meters. It follows that if we could save this 40% of our water supply, recycle river water and have an effective water conservation programme, we would not need any more dams. Mark my words, before long we will again be told that we need yet another dam to meet the water shortage.

In 2010, a study by the Association of Water and Energy Research Malaysia (Awer) revealed that the country’s water industry lost nearly half of its total revenue of RM4 billion, or RM1.7 billion, to non-revenue water (NRW). Awer said Selangor recorded the highest volume of NRW, losing nearly RM600 million in just one year. NRW is water that has been treated but lost through leaks, thefts or faults in metering before reaching the customer.

Time to clean rivers and drains

If other countries can rely on recycling river water for their water supply without resorting to building dams, is there any reason why it cannot be done in this country? In the light of an impending water crisis, why has an emergency plan for cleaning our rivers and recycling river water not been announced and publicised? The current water stoppage in the Klang Valley is said to be caused by diesel pollution of the water sources that lead to the treatment centres.

This has been happening for decades now. In 1999, when SOS Selangor met the ministry officials and showed them a map of the water sources in Selangor with illegal factories highlighted around these river tributaries, the officials showed surprise at our map: “By right, they shouldn’t be there!”

Yes, that was in 1999 although illegal factories had been operating in these “people sensitive” zones for years. Shouldn’t the police and enforcement agencies and local authorities be hauled up to account by MACC?

If we are serious about attracting tourists and breaking out of the mould of a filthy developing country, it is time to clean up our rivers and drains. If we can build the world’s tallest twin towers, there is no reason why we cannot have the resources to clean up and recycle our river water like they are doing in so many countries.

Serious water conservation campaign

We have yet to see a serious water conservation campaign, one which not only encourages household and industrial consumers to conserve but also provides imaginative fiscal incentives to conserve and utilise water efficiently without affecting productivity.

The same can be said for the lack of a serious energy conservation campaign. Unless this is done, we will continue to experience the consequences of a wasteful attitude to water usage, the needless building of dams and, now, a geologically questionable proposal to utilise groundwater just announced by the minister.

What we have witnessed in recent years is the wanton destruction of precious water catchments such as Bukit Sungai Putih Forest Reserve, to name just one example of official irresponsibility. It is an indication of the lack of an overall assessment of the forests, rivers and land resources in the state to determine sustainability.

Even Drainage and Irrigation Department director-general Kheizul Abdullah concedes that no attempt has been made by the respective state governments to establish the capacity to supply water of each of the 150 river basins in the country.

He says it is easy to work out the amount of water that can be extracted sustainably from each basin. As long as the state governments fail to consider the capacity of the river basin, there is no guarantee that adding new dams can solve water shortages, he is quoted as saying.

The facts from the developed countries reveal that water and energy conservation campaigns in these countries have resulted in phenomenal savings in water and energy consumption. Thus, without the need to construct any new dams, conservation measures alone have resulted in savings in water and energy consumption and, at the same time, produced impressive growth figures.

Don’t blame climate change either

Giving away free water makes a mockery of water demand management, which would also involve making sure those who wash their cars everyday pay more for the luxury. When Malaysians start collecting our plentiful rain water for their gardening and cleaning needs, only then will we be on our way to becoming an environmentally conscious people and have a sustainable lifestyle. There must be a deterrent to anyone who wastes water, with a sliding scale of water tariffs to benefit those who are in the low-income bracket.

There is no excuse for ignorance and no reason to blame the water shortage on climate change either. When Suaram was opposing the Sungai Selangor Dam with some other NGO activists who now sit in the Selangor government, we warned about the need for water demand management. Alas, water demand management has been sacrificed for populist handouts.

Populist politicians should bear in mind an old African saying: “Those who expect praise for the rain should also bear responsibility for the drought.”

Kua Kia Soong is the adviser to Suaram.