HomeCommentaryMalaysia's water troubles part of a broader challenge

Malaysia’s water troubles part of a broader challenge

Water is the basis for all life on this planet and, as the human population expands, its continued supply comes into sharper focus.

While many countries jockeyed for oil supplies and feed their addiction to fossil fuels during the latter half of the 20th century, the problem of where to find fresh water was not really an issue.

However, 20 years into the 21st century, we have already seen the most vital of natural resources fought over as nations look to divert water supplies to keep their own people happy at the expense of others.

Peninsular Malaysia does not suffer from this problem to any great extent.

Unlike its regional neighbours, it is not affected by China’s planned damming projects on the Mekong River, for example, which have potentially catastrophic consequences for nations downstream.

Sharing a sliver of a border with Thailand in the north and separated from Singapore by The Causeway in the south, the country’s only cross-border issue lies with the latter.

The island state pipes in a hefty chunk of its raw water from the southern Malaysian state of Johor, in a decades-old agreement that irks Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad intensely.

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Now, Malaysia — or even Mahathir — has no problem with selling water to Singapore, which lacks the catchment areas to provide a sustainable supply of its own.

The issue is what Singapore does with its supply: treating it, turning it into fresh, potable H2O and then selling it back to Johor — at a 2,600 percent mark-up.

Even with the 3-to-1 exchange rate of the Malaysian Ringgit to the Singapore Dollar, that’s a massive profit of which Hollywood execs could only dream and, according to Mahathir, a national slap in the face from its once recalcitrant state.

Clearly, Singapore is not about to give up such a money-spinning venture — especially not when it gets one up on its former master — but simply turning off the taps is not something either side would readily contemplate.

Denial of fresh drinking water violates one of the most basic human rights, while in this case to act in such a manner would be to shoot oneself in the foot, given that either country would be depriving the very people it is trying to protect.

Even in a more testing 21st century when nations globally are considering what was once taboo, such a drastic option is still off the table in this dispute for now and left open to other diplomatic manoeuvring.

Meanwhile, according to statistics database Nation Master, Malaysia also benefits from approaching 2.9m of annual rainfall — roughly the equivalent of Germany, Russia, the UK and the USA combined — making it one of the wettest countries on the planet.

This country should be sitting pretty in terms of water supply, given that it has a relatively modest population of 30 million people.

Yet, in Malaysia, supply is not the issue, it is how to get water to its people effectively that proves to be the perpetual headache.

In the Klang Valley, the beating heart of Malaysia, access to clean running water seems to be nothing more than a pipe dream.

The region is a complex mishmash of cities forming one large conurbation of 8 million people, which is ostensibly the central state of Selangor, but includes the traditional and administrative capitals of Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya respectively, which are administered by the Cabinet directly.

This all adds to the general confusion, with a spectacularly convoluted reporting structure.

Meanwhile, back in 2000, the region’s population was only 4 million people — half of what it is now — and even then it was suffering from acute shortages in water supply.

Today, the word crisis doesn’t even come into the equation.

To put things into context, in a Selangor legislative assembly sitting in November, the chairman of the environment committee announced that on nearly 750 occasions since 2008, one or more of the four water treatment plants for the region had unexpectedly shut down due to pollution alone.

This does not include other typical mishaps, such as an over-enthusiastic contractor drilling through a water main, while resurfacing a road.

In short, people suddenly have had to go without water with little or no warning — and absolutely no time frame on when supplies will be restored.

Most recently, a “pollution incident” forced one of the treatment centres to close abruptly, leaving 1.5 million people without water for three days in the run-up to Christmas.

To add insult to injury, the water authority pointed consumers to its website for further information, but mobile phone users found it difficult to get past its ‘Merry Christmas’ pop-up message.

Meanwhile, the pollution incident in question was some miscreant casually dumping an as-yet unknown substance in the pipe that feeds the Sungai Semenyih treatment plant.

As highlighted, a fairly regular occurrence over the past decade or so.

Result: chaos, with panic-induced consumers descending on hypermarkets for limited bottled water supplies.

If these were isolated incidents, people would just grin and bear it, but their sheer number points to the incompetence, ineptitude and downright unwillingness of the authorities to tackle the problem.

The water authority always promises action, as do the police.

But these are tired old mantras, of which a deeply disgruntled public has grown weary, much less pay any attention.

Plans for a new treatment centre were drawn up in 1992 and it was supposed to be complete in 2014, but nearly 10 years later it is nowhere near fully operational.

Meanwhile, no plans have ever been released on how to introduce fail-safes to stave off wanton dumping of toxic waste and ensure people have uninterrupted access to clean running water.

Central and local government have regularly been accused of dragging their feet over the issue, while they score political points with their adversaries (Selangor was until 2018 in opposition hands, but now the state and the country are run by the Pakatan Harapan coalition), so finger-pointing has been the only regular action.

The problems feed down to the water authorities, which are not unified under one entity and have different reporting structures, none of which have any oversight or, it would seem, capable leadership.

Moreover, the police seem to be employing the time and trusted tactic of waiting for hell to freeze over, so they can catch the culprits with their feet stuck in the ice.

Of all the 744 incidents so mentioned to the Selangor Assembly, you would be hard pressed to find any record of a prosecution, let alone a conviction. Not one.

The long and short of it is a combined, and no less, abject failure of lawmakers and civil servants to provide the one thing people need above all else: water.

It is, after all, a basic human right, is it not?

Gareth Corsi is a freelance journalist based in Malaysia. The views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of LiCAS.news.

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