Having safe drinking water is a major concern in many parts of the world. Based on the latest statistics from the World Health Organization, there are currently an astounding 844 million people who lack basic access to drinking water, including 159 million people who depend on surface water. At least two billion currently use water sources that are contaminated with faeces, which can potentially transmit diseases such cholera, dysentery, typhoid and polio.1
In recent years, Malaysia has witnessed at first-hand the effects of water shortage in several states – especially in Selangor, where intermittent water rationing has been occurring. As a result, water management experts and government policymakers have stepped up mutual cooperative efforts to tackle the issue.
Teluk Bahang Dam.
The National Water Security Conference, held last April and jointly organised by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and Penang Institute, gathered top decision makers from both national and global water management authorities to share their experiences as well as the different sets of challenges that they face in water management.
Penang Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow, who officiated the conference, reiterated the urgent need for the state to implement additional water supply projects in Penang to keep up with rapidly increasing water demands, which is projected to increase by 128% by 2050.
“The Penang Water Supply Corporation (PBAPP) will be investing RM501mil in water supply projects in the period of 2019-2021. Without these projects, Penang faces a higher risk of water crisis during prolonged dry seasons with each passing year,” Chow said during his opening speech.
Datuk Ir. Jaseni Maidinsa, CEO of PBAPP, outlined five key challenges that Penang is currently facing in ensuring water supply sustainability beyond 2025 – climate change leading to protracted dry spells being but one of them.
More pressingly, however, is Sungai Muda, Penang’s only major raw water source. Logging had only been recently banned in the rainforest of Ulu Muda, which forms an important water catchment area. It is yet to be gazetted as a protected forest reserve. Jaseni stressed on the urgent need to protect water catchment areas, stating that Ulu Muda is important not only to Penang, but to Kedah and Perlis as well.
On top of that, Penang has the highest per capita domestic water consumption – at a rate of 276 litres per capita per day compared to the national average consumption rate of 209 litres per capita per day, which makes PBAPP’s task challenging when compared to water authorities in the other states.
The Penang state government has also issued a directive stating that there will not be any water rationing in the state under any circumstances. “These challenges have to be tackled at all cost to avoid what has been experienced in other states such as Selangor,” says Jaseni.
He presented five key strategies divided under demand management and supply management. The emphasis is on the importance of public education and awareness – PBAPP aims to alert the public to critical water issues and inculcate higher awareness towards Penang’s water supply sustainability. One of the ways through which it aims to achieve this is by introducing water education for primary and secondary school students.
Another strategy is to raise the value of water in Penang. This is expected to effectively reduce water consumption in the state: “The more you use, the more you pay,” quips Jaseni.
PBAPP has also implemented the mandatory installation of water-saving devices in all newly constructed buildings in Penang. Incentives are provided for retro-fitting in existing buildings to further expand the effectiveness of the policy.
Finally, Jaseni outlined the need for Penang to acquire additional raw water resources through desalination, water recycling, rainwater harvesting and the ambitious Sungai Perak Raw Water Transfer Scheme (SPRWTS).
SPRWTS was compiled as a recommendation in the “Masterplan Study for Potable Water Supply in Penang until Year 2050”, which is an independent investigative study commissioned by PBAPP back in 2009. PBA had attempted time and again to push ahead with the scheme by requesting for the federal government to immediately implement it; however, their efforts were in vain, and the federal government turned down their requests for political reasons.
“With the new government, we are pushing our long-awaited plan at full speed because if it is not completed in time, we cannot guarantee that Penang will be water ration-free after 2025; this is based on our latest study results,” Jaseni says, referring to the investigative study group’s findings that water from Sungai Muda can only sustain Penang’s water consumption needs up till 2025.
SPRWTS will involve the construction of a 14.8km tunnel across the highlands dividing the Sungai Perak and Sungai Kerian basins. Raw water from Sungai Perak will be pumped through this new pipeline. This water will then reach Sungai Ijok, which is a tributary of Sungai Kerian, by gravity flow, before being extracted by PBAPP from the part of Sungai Kerian that lies within Penang. Once it is completed, its capacity of 1,300 million litres of water per day will enable Penang and north Perak to be supplied with enough water – including for irrigation needs – until 2050.
The conference also included a presentation of the governance and financial aspect of water management by Malaysian and Asean water practitioners – specifically from Thailand and Vietnam – to share the water security assessment and water management experiences of their respective countries with their Malaysian counterparts.
Vijay Padmanabhan, director of ADB’s Urban Development and Water Division in South-east Asia, commented that the conference has given them motivation to seriously consider the feasibility of investing ADB’s interests in water management and water security projects in Penang.
Enzo Sim is a Mass Communications graduate who has an unwavering passion towards International Relations, history and regional affairs of South-east Asia. His passion has brought him to different South-east Asian capitals to explore the diverse cultural intricacies within the region.
1World Health Organization, Drinking-water, https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/drinking-water (accessed May. 7, 2019).