Tapping the resource of clean water

26/03/2010 21:33

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 sea water.

And if we fail to protect that 2% of water resources, we may have to resort to desalination. 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 catchment 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 are giving the greenlight 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 443ha 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 was what 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 are used to kill pests and can do the same to humans.

He said that 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.

The tariff will also 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 would 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 was 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. Forty per cent of Penang’s water supply relies on these sources, so Penang will also face the problem,” he added.

He said Penang had very few water catchment areas so if Kedah did not take care of its forests, Penang would lose its water resources.

“Malaysia still has plenty 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.

Meanwhile, he said, logging would have immediate disastrous effect on Kelantan, which had soil prone to waterlogging due to the high content of clay. 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.

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.

“Here the forests are capturing most of the water, and helping us by letting it go 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



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