Malaysia is fast running out of clean water sources

26/03/2010 21:27


KUALA LUMPUR: Despite the frequent downpours that Malaysians accustomed to, the country is rapidly running out of sources of clean water and facing the likelihood of paying high prices for water.

Imagine, one day we are forced to using reverse osmosis (RO) water for our daily needs. RO water costs around 50 sen a litre and if you used 1,000 litres a month, the bill could reach a hefty RM500.

Would you pay that much of money for water to cook, bathe and wash your clothes?

Malaysians, on an average, pay only 70 sen for 1,000 litres of water, or one cubic metre. So the scenario may seem unthinkable for many of us, who think clean and treated water will be around in abundance forever.

But the truth is, Malaysia is fast running out of sources for clean water.

This problem does not only plague Malaysia, but the whole world.

Remember, only 2% of the world's water resources is consumable while the rest is all sea water.

Desalination is a process that makes sea water drinkable (such as reverse osmosis), but the cost is very high, so the public would have to pay dearly for it.


Why is clean water so hard to come by? "In Malaysia, the main reasons are pollution and poor governance of our water catchments areas," says Water and Energy Consumer Association Malaysia secretary-general S. Piarapakaran.

And one of the first indicators this is happening is a higher water tariff.

He said water catchments and areas surrounding them should be gazetted.

But what has been happening is that state governments were giving the green light for plantation and timbering companies to use the land for profit.

This usually results in pollution of water catchments, high treatment costs and if the pollution is too bad, a permanent shutdown.

He cited a project in a state as an example where a rubber plantation project spanning across 443 hectares that required deforestation at two water intake and treatment points.

"What they are doing is clearing the forest and planting the rubber trees along with a generous amount of fertiliser and pesticides. All these chemicals will seep into the soil or flow down into the rivers when it rains.

"If a settlement at the foot of the hill relies on well water, this is going to go straight in. Fertilisers and pesticides carry ammonia, nitrates and phosphates.

“These three chemicals cannot be present inside your water and the treatment cost for it is high. The moment you have ammonia pollution you have to shut down the water treatment plant," he said.

He said this had happened to water treatment plants at Sungai Nilai and Sungai Langat, which had to be shut down because of ammonia pollution.

Piarapakaran reminded that pesticides were used to kill pests and can do the same to humans.


He said in another case in Cheras, the water treatment plant had to be shut down because of ammonia pollution from sewage.

"They don't have septic tanks to filter the sewage, so the effluents just flow into the river. It's not that we cannot treat it, we can treat all these but when water quality is low, the cost of treatment is high.

“When quality goes down, he said, the tariff will definitely go up.

"This is what we don't want. Even as a consumer association we cannot fight to keep the tariff low. The people will have to realise forests have to be kept because the more forests disappear, the more all these things will come in."

He cited the case of the Ulu Muda water catchment, which was gazetted during the British rule in Malaya.

However, indiscriminate logging took place from the '60s through the '90s.

Despite a cabinet ruling that the logging be stopped and the forest gazetted as a water catchment area in 2003, the state government wanted to continue with "selective logging" in the forest as it claimed it needed "a good source of funding".

According to reports the selective logging will result in Kedah deriving revenue of RM16bil with three to four trees felled for every hectare. As a result, the ecosystem of the Ulu Muda rainforest is seriously compromised.

"This will definitely disrupt the water quality, and once again the treatment cost will go up. And this will not only be a problem for Kedah.

Fourty percent of Penang's water supply relies on these sources, so Penang will also face the problem.

He said as Penang has very few water catchment areas, if Kedah does not take care of its forests, Penang would lose its water resources.


Malaysia still has plentiful of water supply because of our forests.

"Our forests are our water catchment areas. But if the authorities keep bowing to timber companies who wish to do "selective logging" activities, we may have a really big problem in our hands," said Piarapakaran.

He said in Perak, many rainforests of the Titiwangsa Range are being destroyed.

A cross-section of Peninsular Malaysia reveals how the range is supporting the lives of Malaysians.

When it rains, water will flow down from the east and west coast, with the forests controlling the water it catches by and releasing it slowly to the entire peninsula, ensuring it with a constant supply of water.

And that is how the forests are sustaining us, said Piarapakaran. Losing the forests would mean an immense water problem.

This was what is happening in Perak, a state where you will rarely hear cases of flooding, especially in areas like Larut Matang in Selama, he said.

The area receives 5,000mm of rainfall a year, which is the highest in Malaysia but it was never flooded - until recently, when Bukit Larut (formerly Maxwell Hill) in Taiping was flooded.

What happened was that excessive logging took place, causing the area to lose its forests. This caused a low recharge rate with rainwater flowing straight to the lake and then flooding it.

When the lake dries out, the entire water resources will disappear, he explained.

Piaparakaran said the same thing happened in Gunung Semanggol, Perak, which lost a river due to the logging activities around it.

He noted that other states with similar water stresses are Selangor, Penang, Melaka and Kelantan.

"Take the example of Melaka, which had terrible water shortage. Why? Look at how many forests it has. Almost none, everything was wiped out to make way for plantations," he said.

Meanwhile, he said, logging would have immediate disastrous effect on Kelantan which has a high content of clay and was prone to being watrlogged.

This can be seen through the serious flooding the state experiences throughout the years.


Many would be quick to blame the current water crisis to drought, floods and other effects of climate change.

"But it's not just the climate change that is causing water shortage. We are abusing the system as well," said Piarapakaran.

“And the system is straight forward - if we disturb our forests, it impacts our water supply.”

He said two things could happen to Malaysia because of climate change.

“We may have more rain or, we might not have rain at all.

"When the fluctuation of rain is disturbed, the survival of a tropical country is disturbed. This is because the rainfall does not support ground water.

“In a Glacier system (a country with four seasons), the recharge rate is higher because the snow melts slowly.

"Here the forests are capturing most of the water, and helping us by releasing it slowly. For example, if it rains in KL, the Klang River level goes up. But when it's raining there, the level here is very low," he said.

As such, the river only floods after two hours because of the delay, which is a natural process. But when we destroy the forest, this delay time is reduced.

The consequences are lack of water supply, increasing tariff and poor water supply quality so much so that consumers have to fix their own water filters. - Bernama

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