Preventing a water crisis

COMMUNITIES in Johor and Perlis are reeling from a water shortage following a prolonged drought that has affected their livelihoods and the way they live. They have to endure several months of large-scale water rationing exercises because of the low water supply while the authorities take steps to secure additional sources. Traders,

businesses and households in Johor complain that the rationing scheme has hurt their earnings while padi farmers in Perlis — those managing padi fields covering 7,800ha — report losses because the dry spell has prevented them from completing the first planting season. It is tempting to believe that these two states and others in a similar predicament have weathered some dry years and that when the rainy season returns reservoirs throughout Malaysia will be brimming with water again, allowing us to happily return to old practices. But experts warn that those days are gone forever and frequent dry spells are no longer an emergency but a permanent reality.

Part of the problem is El Nino, the climate pattern that puts extra heat into the atmosphere. But much of it is a result of years of mismanagement of water resources, besides increasing demand from a growing population. Environmentalist Gurmit Singh blames poor surface water resources management for Malaysia’s current troubles. The failure of many state governments to safeguard their water catchment areas is disturbing. It is unlikely that Malaysia will run out of water but the Association of Water and Energy Research cautions that the country will not have access to good quality raw water by 2020, if present-day logging and pollution trends persist.

And, the price for treating heavily polluted water is high indeed. Malaysia is relying on surface water for now but leakages, badly maintained and burst pipes lead to much wastage. We have to accept the fact that a protracted period without rain or with little rain is part and parcel of the climate here. The competing demands for water from industry and households in Malaysia require the relevant authorities to evaluate the current strategies that have been adopted to meet these requests.

An expanding population means that Malaysia’s water needs will only go up, even as climate change will most likely make water scarcer. A thorough examination of the way we are dealing with water issues is long overdue. The solution should not only involve taking measures to quickly respond to situations of water shortage but also prioritising actions that would boost water supply in the short and long terms.

The authorities’ response to any occurrence of water shortage should extend beyond their usual declarations of calamity and promises of preventing a repeat. The best move is to embark on sustained programmes that would enable Malaysia to attain water sufficiency in the near future. These should include water-wise campaigns to help consumers develop good habits and be Scrooge-like in their use of the precious commodity. This takes us back to our schools. A child who learns how to save water will inspire others to do the same at home and later in life. Lack of action will mean an unprecedented water crisis. It is a tough task, but there is simply no other option.

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Source: New Straits Times Online. Date: 8 September, 2016