In the News

Manage water demand instead

The article originally published in the Sun:

IN THE Malaysian water story, two things took place this week which reminded me of the need for public utilities – particularly the water industry – to be governed efficiently without vested interests. I am not sure we have achieved this standard in Malaysia quite yet.

At a Water Demand Management workshop earlier this week organised by a local think-tank Research for Social Advancement and conducted by an environmental expert from the Malaysian Nature Society, participants concluded that there was a need to move towards demand-driven management to sustain water supply. This is in contrast to the supply-driven planning that is the case. What this just means is that in determining the amount of water required for domestic and non-domestic users, the onus lies on the government – together with community and civil society – to encourage reduced usage of water through education, enforcement and a host of incentives.

This could be done through a number of means, for example installing water-efficient plumbing fixtures in new homes and buildings, providing water conservation kits to homes, water-efficiency labelling schemes for plumbing fixtures and washing machines, vouchers to households to install high-efficiency toilets as well as – and this would be a potentially sensitive subject – increasing water tariffs to discourage mindless usage.

Some seminar participants seemed uncomfortable with the latter proposal for several reasons. First, it is always controversial whenever prices are increased, something politicians are well aware of. However, the second and more important point raised was the lack of transparency and knowledge of how water producers are making use of profits.

Herein lies the rub: people may be willing to spend more to get top quality water and excellent water services from a consumer’s point of view. But especially in Selangor and Kuala Lumpur where water quality has been less than favourable, coupled with a monopoly water distributor, raising water bills may be extremely difficult at present.

Of course, this comes amid a long-drawn out battle for the water industry in Selangor, where the process of its restructuring has gone through several rounds of negotiations but with little end in sight. The objective of the restructuring, as originally conceived by the federal government in 2006, was to essentially return management and ownership of the water industry to the state, reversing the wrongs of privatisation that was earlier so eagerly pursued.

Mega-Projects All Over Again
Managing water demand basically ensures that people behave more conservatively when it comes to water consumption. If demand is reduced, there would be more than sufficient supply to meet the needs of society. Today, Selangor’s water supply is more than sufficient for the 5 million residents of the Klang Valley, although the concern is what happens in several years, in 2016 and beyond. For example, total water demand in 2009 in Selangor was 2650mld (million litres per day), and production capacity still stands at a comfortable 4476mld although the non-revenue water rates are very high at 32.5%.

The ideal situation is for the government at all levels – federal, state and local – to work together towards demand management. No such programme seems to be in place, the burden of responsibility of which lies with the National Water Services Commission as the water regulator. If it were to embark seriously on this, water consumption levels would stabilise. In the workshop, examples were given of cities with rapid economic growth (Adelaide and Melbourne amongst others) whose water consumption was even lower than that of Selangor. The ratio of water use to GDP usually declines, according to the UN World Water Development Report.

Unfortunately, the government continues to look for mega-projects as a starry-eyed solution. The Pahang-Selangor Water Transfer Project, for example, would cost taxpayers (not just in Selangor, mind you) RM10 billion. Under the plan, Selangor will pay Pahang 10 sen per cubic metre of water, and this involves several infrastructure monsters: the Kelau Dam, a 44.6km-long tunnel, and a water treatment plant.

The most surprising is Energy, Green Technology and Water Minister Peter Chin’s announcement this week that all states in the peninsula would likely be linked with a pipe network to allow water to be transferred to “meet a sudden surge in demand or counter the effects of a prolonged drought”. So, not only will Selangor be a recipient of such large water tunnels but also the whole of Peninsular Malaysia, subject to approval of all state governments.

One can only begin to imagine the cost of such a large mega-pipe network to connect all states in a grand scheme of ensuring water sustainability, the financial burden of which fall smack on Malaysians.

The minister also stated that the state government has refused to work with the federal government on the water issue in Selangor.

Funny – I had the impression that both parties wanted the same outcome but the water concession company was the more demanding of the lot.

It is clear that there is no single consolidated water policy for the country, at least not yet. If there were one, this writer hopes it involves managing water demand as a priority before rushing head-on to yet another large-scale construction project.

Tricia Yeoh is director at a market research consultancy, having worked in the think-tank and public sectors previously. She writes on national and socio-economic issues. Feedback:

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