Using Water Wisely to Keep Water Stress at Bay

Over the past few days, The NST carried on its front page “Drought action: As authorities prepare for dry days ahead...” (NST 10 Feb 2007). The Star had also carried front page news on an impending water crisis (The Star 7 Feb 2007) and warnings for the public to conserve water or face rationing (The Star 8 Feb 2007). Even water companies are now warning the public to conserve water. Is this a taste of what is to come? Are we going to get a water crisis like what happened in 1997/98 on the wake of an El Nino when hundreds of thousands had to suffer water rationing for months? On the wake of the Johor and Sabah floods, it is ironical that warnings of impending drought have been issued by the authorities. The floods demonstrate that Malaysia is a country rich in water resources, but unfortunately rains are unevenly distributed over time and space. Some states get more rain than others, and some months are wet while others are dry. In fact, floods often give policy makers and the public a false picture, luring them into a sense of false security. The irony is that many parts of the country still get hit by drought and water stress (not to mention poor quality piped water) all the time. The El Nino in 1997/98 not only laid bare the fragility of our water resources, but also weaknesses in its management. How else can a country with an average of 3,000 mm of rain per year and per capita renewable water resources of more than 20,000 m3 (the international water stress line is 1,700 m3) be subject to water stress and water crisis if not for mismanagement? Government is over-focussing on Water Supply Management (WSM), viz. building dams, treatment plants and pipes. Of course there is lots of money to be made in this but government must realize that it cannot keep on supplying water as the amount of water is finite but water demand is ever increasing. Consumers must be taught the value of water and how to use water wisely, i.e. not to waste water. All these years since the El Nino of 97, there have been no sustained efforts in water saving campaigns. Only recently in 2006 did the Ministry of Energy, Water and Communications (MEWC) launch a nationwide “Water Savings Campaign”. In order to ensure that the campaign is successful, the 2 year campaign should not just end after 2 years but should be continuous so that the entire nation can be reached. People need to be reminded all the time about the importance of water as there is no substitute, unlike food. Water should be used wisely, not wasted. The motto is “Make every drop count”.
Whether the current El Nino will be as “bad” as the last one or not, Malaysians have to prepare for the worse and insulate themselves from another water crisis. Even during normal times without El Nino, we should be prepared. For the moment, let us just assume it is coming and prepare our responses to address it. Naturally the government cannot increase our water supply capacity overnight as building a dam or treatment plant takes years. So what we can do right now is getting people sensitized and getting them to be ready. The idea is to get all water consumers on board and start getting them to save water right away. Once people get used to the idea of saving water, they will feel less pain and stress when the government issues a water rationing order. One easy and painless way to start is to get everyone to reduce water use via simple and painless measures such as these: Brushing teeth with a glass of water rather than a running tap; cutting down the numbers of showers, shower time and switching off the shower when soaping and shampooing; washing the car with two pails of water rather than a running hose; waiting for a full load before washing clothes with the washing machine, even if it means one wash in two days; and by flushing once only after two times we urinate. This last measure is easily done as one does not need to flush the toilet after every pee. The average person urinates about five to seven times a day. Flush once after every two pees. But do so to ensure that hygiene is not jeopardized. Close the toilet cover or put some pandan leaves in the toilet to reduce smell. One flush is about 9 litres of water. If every Malaysian flushes one flush less per day, we will save 234 million litres of water per day! This amount of water can fill up approximately 10 medium size dams, and the water saved can then be utilized during a drought or El Nino.

By Dr Chan Ngai Weng, President Water Watch Penang