The Current Water Crisis


Dr Chan Ngai Weng


Water is life. There is no life without water. Everybody knows this. Water is the single most important element that sustains all life forms on earth. We need water to sustain ourselves and for a variety of other reasons. Even our bodies are largely made up of water. Historically, it is water that determines the rise and fall of human civilisations. Now, this fact is even more so as the limits of any society depends on water. In the future, whether or not humans will be able to colonise the moon and other planets depends to a large degree on whether or not there is life-giving water on them. Yet, the importance of water to life cannot be stressed often enough. Time and again, humans pay scant regard to this vital resource, as manifested by reckless neglect, mismanagement and even abuse. It is baffling how humans continue to destroy water catchments and pollute water sources in their obsessive quest for “progress”. Humans tend to possess this eternal tendency for self destruction. It is widely predicted by the scientific community that if humankind continues along the current path of global environmental destruction, we will ultimately also end in self destruction. When all the water has disappeared or are too polluted to be consumed, all our progress and material wealth will count for nothing. So why are we looking at far away stars and galaxies? Are we so nonchalant (about things on earth) as to focus our eyes beyond the stars when we cannot even manage to sustain the resources we have on our planet? Humans should instead look at what they have on earth, especially water, and take all necessary actions to conserve and protect it.

Unlike in the not too distant past where water was plentiful and populations (humans and others) scarce, water is now becoming a scarce commodity in many parts of the world. It is often the source of quarrels among neighbours, disputes among sovereign states, confrontation among countries and even war among larger groups. Indeed, one of the critical issues of the United Nations when reviewing the implementation of the Agenda 21 (or the lack of it) is the fast approaching crisis in freshwater resources which is expected to hit many countries at the beginning of the next millennium. The 1992 Earth Summit in Rio clearly recognised the importance of freshwater resources as one of the critical resources under threat from environmental degradation. Despite this recognition, and the promise made by all countries concerned under Agenda 21, the situation of freshwater resources has not improved. If anything, it has even deteriorated. The World Water Council has pointed out that the demand for freshwater resources doubles every 20 years or so. Thus, while in 1950 the council estimated that only 12 countries with a total of 20 million people suffered water shortages, this figure has increased more than two folds to afflict 26 countries in 1990 with the affected population increasing to more than 15 folds at 300 million. The council has projected that by 2050, 65 countries will be hit by water supply problems with a total of seven billion people or 60 % of the world's population affected. This is alarming indeed considering the fact that water is a basic necessity in life. The question, therefore, is not "What have we done". Neither is it "What can we do" but "What must be done".

To confirm the grave water situation we are facing and will face in the coming millennium, the United Nation's Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) has estimated that over 8 % of the current world's population now live in countries that are highly water stressed, another 25 % in countries with moderate to high water stress. The CSD has even warned that if current trends in water use continue, two-thirds of the world's population could soon be living in countries with moderate to high water stress by the year 2050.

The Water Situation in Malaysia

Malaysia is one of those fortunate countries in which water resources are abundant. The country's proximity to the Equator has given rise to a hot, wet humid equatorial climate regime in which heavy year round rainfall averaging more than 2,000 mm is received annually. In the wetter areas such as the east coast of the peninsula, an average annual rainfall of 5,000 mm is not uncommon. Significantly, under normal climatic trends, rain falls almost the entire year in all parts of the country and no single month is ever completely dry. As a result of the high rainfall all year round there are more than 150 river systems which are the country's major sources of water supply as there are few large lakes or underground aquifers. Surface runoff constitutes 556 bcm or 56 per cent of the annual total rainfall, which is estimated at 990 billion cubic metres (bcm) (1 bcm = 1 million Megalitres), while total groundwater is about 64 bcm or only 6 per cent of total rainfall (the remaining 370 bcm or 38 per cent of total rainfall is lost through evapo-transpiration). Hence, lucky Malaysians enjoy a per capita renewable water of more than 20,000 cubic meters per year, as compared to some poor middle eastern water starved people with per capita renewable water of less than 1,000 cubic metres per year. That means one person in Malaysia has access to more than 20 times the water available to someone in Yemen!


In all aspects of water supply and demand, the one issue that is most obvious is that of Non-Revenue Water (NRW) or water that is lost either through breakage, theft, seepage or other unaccountable ways. Yet, it is one issue that is often “hidden” in the agenda as the water authorities and water companies deliberately concentrate on increasing supply instead of reducing NRW. This is understandable from the economic viewpoint, though not necessarily morally and ethically right, because the cost of replacing old and rusty pipes is astronomical. Also, such a tedious and mundane job is not as exciting as, say, building a new dam which is the “biggest” in a region. Naturally, politicians involved would want to project a better image by going for the more prestigious and high profile projects. Replacing old pipes certainly do not fit into this picture. In the case of private water companies who sell treated water to the government, they are not concerned about NRW since they charge the government what they treat at the treatment source. NRW occurs only after it has left the treatment plant, and hence is not the problem of the water company. This is one of the reasons for the current dispute between a private water company and a state government. The earth works and others involved with a large scale water mains replacement project would also cause considerable inconvenience to the public and significant water loss in the process. Hence, it is not surprising that a low priority is given to such a task.

Notwithstanding all the unsavoury aspects of NRW, the water authorities should change their mindset from one of solely concentrating on increasing water supply (hence more profits) to a more balanced approach involving better management of both water supply increment and the reduction of water loss. They should realise that the losses from NRW is substantial as shown in Table 1. Everyday, millions of litres of precious treated water are loss. In 1995, a total of 9,442 million litres of treated water was produced per day. With a NRW loss rate averaging at 38 % in 1995, a total of 3,587 million litres per day (mld) was lost. This amounted to a total lost of 1,309,255 million litres. At the selling price of 51.3 sen per cubic metre, this amounted to RM671.6 million in the whole country for 1995.

Table 1: Water Supply Capacity and Non-Revenue Water in Malaysia


Year Capacity Consumption Water Water Estimated Loss Annual
(mld)* (mld) Loss Loss in Revenue Loss
(mld) (%) Per Day (RM) (RM)

1995 9,442 7,704 3,587 38 1.84 million** 671.6 million
2000e 11,800 9,160 3,304 28 1.69 million 616.9 million

* mld = million litres per day; 1 litre = 0.001 m3; 1 mld = 1,000 m3 per day).
** Based on cost of water sold at 51.3 sen per m3 (Average price in Penang).
e For the year 2000, all values are estimated.

(Source: Seventh Malaysia Plan)

In Table 2, the extent of NRW in Penang State is illustrated. The Penang Water Authority is amongst the most efficient in the country with a NRW loss averaging about 20 %. In comparison, some States have NRW losses of much greater magnitude. For example, Sabah (58 %), Kedah (48%), Pahang (48 %) and Kelantan (40 %) all have NRW losses above 40 %. Even the Federal Capital and Selangor, two of the most progressive in the country have NRW losses at 40 %, twice of Penang’s. Nevertheless, Penang should strive for an even lower NRW water loss in view of the fact that it is poor in water resources and depends largely on Kedah (the Muda River) for its water needs.

In all fairness, it is not just the water authorities and the water companies that are responsible for water loss and wastage. Community wastage is another problem. Ever come across running taps, leaking pipes and burst mains in toilets and other public places? Have you ever taken any action to report them to the authorities? Every year, a substantial amount of water is loss through public wastage. Household wastage is another problem. Since water is cheap (the average person pays only about RM5.00 per month for his/her water bill), nobody gives a damn about saving water, unless of course, you happen to live in parts of Kuala Lumpur or Selangor where water rationing is in progress now. Water thefts is another problem, one that is described as the tip of the iceberg when a private company was caught stealing water from the mains in Bukit Kamunting, Shah Alam. According to the news reports, the company has been alleged to be stealing water for the past two years at a rate of 450,000 litres a day (Sun, 16 May 1998). Even during the height of Selangor’s water crisis, a sports and recreation club in Klang was caught stealing water from a fire hydrant to fill its swimming pool (Sun, 22 May 1998). The club was not charged in court but instead fined a meagre RM500 for misuse of water. In fact, illegal connections to water mains are widespread and difficult to control. Even when caught, the Selangor Waterworks Department did not take the offenders to court but instead let them off lightly by merely installing meters to the illegal connections (NST, 29 April 1998). According to one plumbing contractor who was interviewed by the NST, he has been involved with connecting and disconnecting illegal pipes to water mains for over 20 years! It appears almost impossible to stop illegal tapping of water as the mains and other auxiliary pipes in each State are extensive. Here, I think the authority has got it wrong. Catching all the thieves may be impossible and should not be the main concern. Instead they should concentrate on catching a few “big thieves” and slapping hefty fines and jailing them as an example.

Table 2: Water Supply Capacity, Consumption and Loss in Penang


Year Capacity Consumption Water Loss Water Loss Estimated Loss
(million m3) (million m3) (million m3) (%) in Revenue (RM)

1981 104.2 85.5 18.7 17.9 6.86 million*

1990 166.3 131.2 35.1 21.1 13.55 million**

1995 204.0 172.3 48.1 23.6 24.68 million***

* Based on cost of water sold at 36.7 sen per m3 in 1981.
** Based on cost of water sold at 38.6 sen per m3 in 1990.
*** Based on cost of water sold at 51.3 sen per m3 in 1995.

(Source: PBA)


Against a wet climatic background, the water security situation in Malaysia appears sound. But what appears sound may not be so against the background of years of mismanagement and neglect. Our water security situation may actually be far from being infallible. Hence, water stress and other water hazards such as floods, droughts, water pollution and water supply shortages have occurred regularly in many parts of the country in recent years. These unsavoury events are in fact increasing in frequency and severity as manifested by the current water crisis afflicting many States in the country. The current water crisis which has crippled many aspects of life (so often taken for granted) in many States is testimony enough to the fact that we are not managing this vital resource to the best of our ability. If anything, we have in fact abused water in terms of bad management, wastage and negligence.

For example, the Selangor State authorities have been warned repeatedly about over-logging and its effect on the destruction of water catchments since the National Water Resources Study was completed in 1982. In 1991, it was again warned by the Selangor Forestry Department to restrict excessive logging. Even the Prime Minister advised the State to impose a total ban on logging in 1991. Again, in 1993, the DID made the same call and in 1995, it was the Selangor Waterworks Department which projected a severe water shortage from 1997. However, while appearing to heed some of these calls with minor actions, the Selangor State government did not do enough. Its obsessive aim of “rapid development” overshadowed everything else. Hence, its apathetic attitude towards its forest, water catchments and the natural environment in general. Studies have shown that over-logging and development of hill land can lead to excessive soil erosion, landslides, destruction of water catchments, water pollution and downstream flooding (Plate 1 and Plate 2).

In the case of Penang, a lackadaisical attitude amongst State and local authorities have also been responsible for its water woes. While water catchments are scarce in Penang (Penang draws 80 % of its water needs from Kedah), it is ludicrous how the authorities can approve a grandiose plan to develop Penang Hill in 1990. Fortunately, widespread public outcry and concerted efforts from NGOs have managed to “convince” the State authorities to reject the plan. However, recently in 1997, the approval of the Penang Hill Structure Plan whereby a significant portion of water catchments in the area will be subject to development is yet another case of apathy towards water conservation. Because of hill land development and deforestation of Penang Hill, Paya Terubong hill and other hills, water resources are being depleted (as is happening in the recent water stress in the Balik Pulau area) and water hazards such as flash flooding and the spread of waterborne diseases are on the increase (Plate 3). The biggest proof of apathy on the part of Penang’s authorities was the recent lifting of the 20-year freeze on development above the 75 m contour on 6th January 1998 by the State EXCO. This “blind” move, ostensibly due to lack of land in Penang (although the current economic crisis has slowed down the construction industry substantially and demand for housing has also slackened), has effectively opened up even water catchment land for development. This move has been severely criticised since the only policy of restricting development on hill land is buried and the last defence removed. Fortunately, whether on hindsight or due to the current water crisis, the Chief Minister has announced that a new Water Supply Enactment would be tabled in the June 1998 State legislative assembly for the gazettement of water catchments (The Star, 22 May 1998). This is a welcome move but the effectiveness of such a law needs to be seen. There are current laws to protect water catchments indirectly such as The Land Conservation Act 1960 (Revised 1989), The Land Acquisition Act 1960 , The EIA Order 1987 and others, but they have been largely ineffective because of poor enforcement. Hence, what is needed is better enforcement of the law.

Elsewhere in the country, it is again apathy on the part of the relevant authorities that has contributed to the Durian Tunggal episode in Malacca in 1991, destruction of water catchments in the Lojing Highlands in Kelantan in 1997 and the diesel spills in the Langat River in Selangor in 1997 and the Sungai Dua plant in Penang 1998. There are many more incidents of such apathy if we care to dig up the records but these few examples should suffice.

Of course, to be fair to the authorities, the general public’s apathy towards water use and the environment in general is also to be blamed for much of today’s water woes. For example, while the authorities have to take part of the blame for the destruction of water catchments and the siltation of the lake in Cameron Highlands for allowing too much development (Plate 4), vegetable farmers in the area must surely be responsible for their apathetic attitude towards the environment for the loads of pesticides, weedicides and chemicals from fertilisers that they have poured into the soil and the water system. Here again, profits take priority over everything else and hence farmers have no qualms about poisoning the land and water. The general Malaysian public must also take part of the blame for being apathetic when it comes to littering and rubbish disposal. One only need to look at the condition of our rivers to see the proof of such apathetic attitude. Rivers are Malaysia’s main water sources (since underground water is rare) but are treated as raw sewers by the public as everything from domestic rubbish to furniture and even old cars are dumped into rivers (Plate 5). Sources in the Municipal Council of Penang Island confirmed that at least 10 lorry loads of rubbish are cleared from the Sg Pinang everyday. And finally, how many of us has ever thought about saving water , let alone do something about it? I believe the majority, if not all our unfortunate fellow Malaysians who are now experiencing the pain of water rationing are only doing their part in water saving when they are faced with the problem. Hence, it is a case of “Crying only when you see the coffin”.

Such apathetic attitude must change if we are to conserve our water resources. More importantly, the Malaysian public must surely do something now that those responsible are losing the battle to conserve as well as supply enough water to all. Since the authorities and water companies can only understand one way of solving water problems, i.e. by increasing water supply albeit making little or no attempt to conserve it (or at least educate the public to conserve water until it is too late like during the current crisis), then it is up to the public to save water. Hence, notwithstanding what the authorities and the private water companies have done or are still doing to alleviate water woes (including trying out some really outlandish methods supposedly capable of moving clouds and making rains), the Malaysian public must not “wait and see” but take immediate action. Certainly, the public has had enough as they are the ones experiencing the agony and stress of water rationing. Waiting for those bungling parties to do their job would be an exercise in futility. How far can the public trust the authorities when it has taken them 15 years just to form the National Water Resources Council (the idea was first mooted way back in 1983)? Even when the council is formed (the Cabinet has approved it as of 29 April 1998), we have no idea how successful it will be. In all fairness, the resistance of some water-rich States (to safeguard their own resources) and powerful economic interests are partly to be blamed and are still anticipated to be problematic for this council. Likewise, privatised water companies are a new phenomenon in their infancy. Hence, neither can the public wait for these water companies to do their part for the records show that many have failed miserably, although some in water-rich States, appear to be doing a fairly good job. The public must do their part now, wake up from their slumber and make crucial and telling sacrifices.

Blaming it on El Nino

That the years 1997/1998 are El Nino years are unquestionable. What is questionable, however, is the blaming of everything ranging from forest fires, haze, drought, flood, crop loss, water shortages, etc. on El Nino. Pointing fingers will serve no purpose, even though it is a common habit amongst Malaysians, especially amongst those responsible. When the water crisis dawned on Selangor, the Works Minister pushed the blame on to the State Government citing water to be a State matter. The State then passed it on to the Water authority which in turn blamed the climate and others for stealing water. Even putting the blame on the El Nino would be pointless. With such abundant rainfall and surface water resources available, not even the greatest of all El Ninos will have more than a mere side effect on the water security situation in the country, i.e. had those responsible done a fairly good job on managing our water resources. But putting the blame squarely on those responsible would also be useless, given the fact that those in high places often get away scot-free (no big shots were punished for the Durian Tunggal episode in Melaka in 1991, neither was anyone implicated for the February 23 1998 incident which spilled 2,700 litres of diesel into a raw water canal at the PWA pump station in Lahar Tiang, Sungai Dua, Penang or the ammonia pollution of the Langat River in March 1998). Even under the current most stressful and difficult water rationing period in Selangor, which has affected hundreds of thousands, no one was blamed let alone prosecuted barring old scapegoat El Nino. Hence, the legendary tolerance of the Malaysian public to bungling parties who just can’t deliver.


The government has a moral responsibility to provide the people with adequate and quality water supply. Water is an essential public good. It is one that is needed by people of all race, creed and status. Both the poor and the rich are entitled to adequate water. Even the homeless and those living in remote villages must not be deprived of this vital resource. Without water, nothing works. Because of its importance, water should never be privatised despite claims by many quarters (including private water companies) that privatisation of the water industry would improve effectiveness. While there have been many cases of successful privatisation of the water industry in western countries, there is none so far in Malaysia. States that have privatised part or all its water industry are now having problems as evident in the current water crisis in certain States. While privatisation may not be entirely bad, the appointment of suitable candidates for the privatisation exercise is vital. Here, meritocracy must be the only criteria. The company taking over the water industry must be established and have adequate experience in the field. This is not the case in many water companies in Malaysia. Even taking into consideration the climate of the current economic crisis which necessitates the awarding of contracts to local companies, it is does not make sense to award water contracts to an inexperienced company. Here, perhaps a joint partnership between an international company and a local one may be the solution. Whatever the choice, the authorities should make it transparent to the public, a policy so preached by the government.

Increasingly, privatisation has created more problems than it has solved. Arguably, there are areas in which privatisation has worked, but such cases are few and far between. On the other hand, if we start counting the failures, the list would be long. To be fair, though, there are certain goods that can be privatised and some that should not be, for the sake of the people. It is okay to privatise the Inland Revenue Department and the Postal Service but not Health Care, water, public education and other basic necessities. When privatised, these goods will no longer be treated as necessities. Instead, the companies appointed will simply treat them on a monetary basis or simply “You pay you get”. Since all private companies run on the profit motive, it will only have this in their mind and not the welfare of the public. Water is a basic necessity, and everybody is entitled to all his/her water needs. The water company will only supply the water if it is making a profit. What if it is running at a loss due to some unforeseen circumstances? Is it going to increase its tariffs? What would the effect on price be if there is a great drought that lasts for years? In the worse scenario, what if the water company collapses? Where will the water come from then? Water is simply too precious a resource to leave it to the hands of private companies. The government must keep this responsibility at all costs. It is its moral responsibility to the people.

We also need responsible leaders, not those with mere lib service. We simply cannot have leaders who start pointing fingers everytime a crisis surface. Responsible leaders should even take on the blame and try to solve the problem, not blaming others or shying away. Many Malaysian politicians resort to blaming the weather or the El Nino. Yet, even more incredible is when they start blaming God for man’s failures. How can we call our country a developed one when we still blame God for every environmental woe? And yet, there are some really religious leaders who claim that environmental disasters are God’s way of punishing humans. How did we ever elect them is beyond my comprehension. We need responsible leaders, not shirkers. Children immitate their parents and people immitate their leaders (though not all). Many leaders also blame the west (whether government, NGOs or individuals) for many of our problems, including environmental woes. Malaysians are better educated now and it is naive to think that they can be hoodwinked by such evasive actions. Ultimately, the Rakyat should perhaps be more careful when they choose their leaders in the next election.


On the whole, it is must be pointed out (time and again) that in its frantic quest for progress, development, modernisation and industrialisation, Malaysia is falling into the same trap as its more developed but environmentally degraded western counterparts had in the past. Every country, of course, is entitled to development. All nations aspire to become rich and affluent, and to get out of the stigma of being a developing, or worse still, under-developed Third World country. But what is the price one should pay for such development? Let’s look at the USA, the UK and eastern Europe (Poland, Russia and the old East Germany). They are no doubt developed but now has to spend billions of dollars to clean up their environment, if it can be “cleaned”. Vast tracts of land and water in Russia, Poland and East Germany are so poisoned that nothing grows in the soil and only the hardiest of aquatic life can survive in the waters. Is this what we want in our beloved country? It is about time the authorities realise that whatever development achieved must be accompanied by an equally healthy and high quality of life. How can there be good quality of life when we don’t have enough water? (Not forgetting other essentials such as clean air, green environment, fertile soils, etc.) How can one reconcile the fact that a large hotel in Batu Ferringhi (Penang) uses the equivalent of the total water usage of Teluk Bahang, a small town? Obviously, rapid development more or less equates more hotels (in the case of tourism) and since water is limited in a small State like Penang, someone will have to suffer in times of water woes, and you can bet your last Ringgit that it won’t be the tourist.

Even without looking at the blunders made by western developed countries, we have had enough episodes of water woes and water related crises to remind us to be extremely careful when dealing with nature. The relevant authorities ought to have learnt from lessons in past incidents and warnings given such as the severe droughts in the Muda region in Kedah and Perlis in 1977/78 (and countless other less severe droughts), the warnings of the National Water Resources Study about conserving water way back in 1982; the Durian Tunggal episode in Malacca in 1991; the warnings of the Prime Minister to the Menteri Besar of Selangor about deforestation in catchment areas in 1991; the warnings of the Drainage and Irrigation Department about chronic water shortage in the future if no concerted efforts were made to conserve water resources in 1993 (Utusan Konsumer, May 1998); the September diesel spill in the Langat River; the October 7 and 13 detection of ammonia in the Langat River, and again in March 1998; and the February 1998 oil spill in Sungai Dua , Penang. On all accounts, those involved should have learnt from all these incidents and warnings. Yet, they have not. Tragically, and to the detriment of the public at large, the water authorities have learnt very little indeed. Historically, human societies seem to have extreme difficulty in learning from their own past and there is even less chance of learning from others. While other factors including political ones have often intervened and watered down the lessons of experience, it is evident that many have not learned as much as they should from the advantage of experience. Water woes and crises will always be present in Malaysia as long as the water authorities do not learnt from their past mistakes. In a country where physical conditions generate abundant rainfall, humans will continue to have a “false sense of security” about the water situation.

The current water crisis will soon be forgotten as people from all walks of life pick up their lives as the economy recovers. People will go back to their jobs and once again feverishly compete in the rat race to forge ahead. When the market becomes bullish, it's business as usual again. Malaysians typically have very short memory spans, particularly when it comes to disasters like water crises. More so, for the vast majority who were not affected or not adversely affected by the water crisis, the terms "water rationing" or "water cuts" will not be in their vocabulary. Hopefully, greater awareness and deeper understanding of the importance of water due to work carried out by the government and NGOs, will change all these. Hopefully, Malaysians would become more responsible to the environment, to the ways they use water, and evolve into a "Water Saving Society".

Copyright © 2007-2008 Water Watch Penang.