Selangor is the richest and most developed state in Malaysia yet there are still people in the state that are still relying on harvesting rainwater for their own use. What is the problem? To some it’s a ticking time bomb, while some others argue there is no problem at all.
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Water shortage in Selangor not a modern problem
For many deep in Hulu Langat, this is the story for generations.
by Rahmah Pauzi, Anushiya Kesavan and Naavish Nair
SELANGOR is the hub of development; the gateway to Malaysian exports and the most developed state in the country.
Away from the hustle and bustle of one of the most developed states in Malaysia is a cluster of houses without one of the most basic necessities — piped water. For 50 years since the settlement started, it has been a 200-metre trek to the source — a river nearby.
Just a 40-minute drive from Kuala Lumpur is Kampung Sungai Tekali, a small kampung of approximately 300 households in Hulu Langat. This place is around 20 minutes away from Pekan Batu 9, Cheras. However, treated tap water is quite literally ‘liquid gold’ for the residents in this settlement.
Though the governing water bodies in the area (which ranged from SYABAS to Air Selangor) have attempted to rectify the problem, they were faced with challenges time and time again due to its high geographical altitude which requires water pipes to sustain a higher pressure for the water to reach the homes.
Due to the inconsistent water supply, the residents have resorted to using water from a nearby river as their main water source. This is worrying as the river likely contains high levels of ammonia and E. coli. The current development around the area also has polluted the river turning its clear water to a murky brown resembling our morning teh tarik.
One would think twice before using that water, but for the residents of Kampung Sungai Tekali, it seems as if it is one of the only viable options. Water related issues like these are not exclusive to Kampung Sungai Tekali as we have seen with the water crisis around Klang Valley.
Looking at it from a broader perspective, all water crises in our country stem from the fact that we have just enough water to get by, especially in densely populated areas like Selangor, Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya, where there is a water reserve margin which is close to zero. [Water reserve margin refers to the difference between the production capacity and usage of water in a certain area.]
“That is an indication that the system is failing,” said S. Piarapakaran, from Association of Water and Energy Research Malaysia (AWER).
According to him, the water crisis especially in July last year in parts of Selangor is an indication that the issue has a deep-rooted problem, all due to the fact that Malaysia is not preparing well to meet the water demand from its people years before a crisis takes place.
“The west coast (at that time) received a lot of rain, but further in it was very dry. And usually the water demand increases and you will see pockets of water disruptions in areas like Cheras, Seri Kembangan. If the system has enough reserve margin, it’ll be able to meet the demand. If it’s not meeting demand, then pressure is dropping, it means that your demand is actually superseding supply,” he added.
It does not help that Malaysians have among the cheapest water prices in the regions, and among the countries with the most affordable water prices in the world.
Visualisation: Price of a 1.5 Litre Bottled Water in Various Countries
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That being said, with the cheap water comes the tendency to waste it.
The United Nations had recommended through the World Health Organization (WHO) that the daily water consumption per person should be at an average of 165 litres per day. However, Malaysians, on average, consume over 200 litres per day. This is significantly more than the average daily water consumption of our neighbours, Singapore and Thailand, whose people use an average of 150 and 190 litres daily respectively.
We desperately need to reduce water wastage, especially now with the dry spells and an ongoing pandemic. Institutions such as SPAN and Air Selangor had come up with initiatives in the past in order to reduce water consumption but their attempts have proved unsuccessful.
This is an alarming trend because we have seen that the water supply increases at a slower pace as compared to its demand that shoots up tremendously. Our tiny water reserve margin is not reassuring and the fact that efforts such as Langat 2 in Selangor are being delayed, is using up the luxury of time that we do not have.
If this situation continues, we might need to rely on other sources of water.
Dr Xavier Jayakumar, the former Former Minister of Water, Land and Natural Resources suggested the use of underground water as a cheaper alternative to the cost-ineffective treatment of river water.
This suggestion is recommended by many water experts, one of them being Ir Balachandran Naicker, a member of Rukun Tetangga Subang Jaya who is a registered professional civil engineer.
Not only is underground water good for increasing our national water supply, but it is also proven to reduce the impact of drought in urban, as well as, rural areas.
At present, hardly 3 per cent of the current water used in Malaysia comes from underground water, as only a handful of states in Malaysia are utilising this water source. States like Selangor and certain parts of Sabah and Sarawak only use underground water as a source for domestic usage in areas where there is no piped water supply. For Kelantan, underground water makes up for more than 40 per cent of their public water supply.
The percentage of underground water use in Malaysia (less than 3 per cent) is far pale in comparison to other countries such as Denmark (100 per cent), Austria (98 per cent), Thailand (80 per cent), China (78 per cent) and the United States (50 per cent). This is attributed to our failure to harvest the potential of underground water.
The reason why the opportunity to use underground water is not seized is because with this solution comes issues and challenges.
Because underground water is rarely used in Malaysia, it is not appropriately evaluated. This poses a challenge to the management and usage of this water source.
Not only that, underground water is also prone to contamination as salt water may intrude coastal wells that would lower its water quality. Underground water contamination is difficult to fix and thus, it has to be protected through the controlling of its abstraction and pollution.
Another challenge that may arise is on the legal and administrative procedures in the management of this water source. Issues such as licensing requirements, scheming and creating water protection zones, all fall under this category.
Hopefully, implementation of laws and policies may help overcome these issues. Selangor has its own Water Management Authority Enactment 1999 (Enakmen Lembaga Urus Air Selangor 1999) that governs the management of water resources, river basin and coastal waters in the state.
We should focus on assessing the quality and quantity of underground water in all states and using it sparingly and only where necessary as not to cause wastage, pollution or exploitation of this water source.
This underground water source has the potential to be a supplementary or alternative to our current water source, which is surface water. If and when this happens, there should be better management of this water source so as not to end up being polluted, exploited or depleted much like our current water source.
To do this, there should be an organisation or institution set up to create, coordinate and implement policies regarding the usage, management and conservation of underground water to ensure its sustainability.
With dry spells and the COVID-19 virus in our midst, water has never been more valuable. As we struggle to keep within the UN recommended water usage, alternative and supplementary water sources should be sought. Underground water is a great choice but the issues and challenges that come with it should be looked into and resolved to ensure a smooth transition to its usage where necessary.
Maybe there is hope for the residents of Kampung Sungai Tekali in the form of underground water after all.
This article was written as part of the Kiniacademy Investigative Journalism program. For more on this story, listen to the podcast at https://fijiasia.com/2021/07/02/air-dan-selangor-ada-masalah-ke/
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*This article was also published in Malay Mail.