Asean solution for water crisis


WHEN UK Masterchef John Torode riled up Malaysians, Singaporeans, Indonesians and even Bruneians with his remark that chicken rendang should be crispy, he did something no diplomat has done since the establishment of Asean – he united people across the region in their grim disapproval of him.

Wouldn’t it be great if this regional uproar could be targeted at the water scarcity issue as well?

Singaporeans rely on Malaysia for 60% of their water, which puts them at the mercy of Johor’s water management system. Jakarta is experiencing water scarcity after years of drilling directly from the groundwater aquifers. Even Brunei experiences water scarcity in certain areas.

Truth is none of the Asean countries can stand alone in solving their water scarcity, supply, distribution and sanitation problems. And yet there is no successful regional collaboration to address this issue so far.

In 2016, World Vision International launched an initiative called Asia P3 Hub, which focuses on water, sanitation and hygiene in Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Myanmar and the Philippines. The fact that such an initiative exists is an acknowledgement that there is a problem which these countries cannot solve on their own.

In 2008, Singapore launched its business-oriented biennial International Water Week, a global platform to share and co-create innovative water solutions. It will be held in July this year.

There is an understanding that water scarcity is a regional problem and collaboration, instead of focusing on national interest, would result in a win-win situation.

Water is so essential that the World Economic Forum has predicted that a global food crisis could be triggered by the worsening water security situation in the next 15 to 20 years, with shortfalls of up to 30% in rice and other cereal production.

The water concern in Malaysia involves both supply and consumption. We consume too much, and demand is growing to the point that our supply simply will not be able to keep up with it.

According to the Malaysia Water Industry Guide 2017, for the output capacity (ability to produce treated water) of water treatment plants in 2016, Penang had the highest water reserve margin at 34.1%, followed by Labuan (29.2%); Perak (28.7%); Terengganu (27.2%); Negri Sembilan (22.1%); Pahang (21.4%); Sarawak (20.7%); Melaka (20.1%); and Johor (16.4%). Our national water margin average is 13.2%. Selangor has only 4%.

Let’s focus on Selangor, which recently suffered a crisis in water supply. When a surge vessel system at the Sungai Selangor Phase 3 (SSP3) water treatment plant exploded, it caused extensive damage to the facility and seriously injured at least five workers who were involved in a scheduled repair work. The explosion also left roughly 427 areas or 500,000 accounts in the Klang Valley high and dry, the reason being simply that Selangor does not have enough water reservoirs or buffer zones to accommodate emergency needs.

This has severe repercussions on our economic growth. Malaysia’s Real Estate and Housing Development Association (Rehda) recently released a statement saying that more than 700 developed properties in Klang Valley could not attain Certificates of Completion and Compliance (CCCs) due to problems related to water supply. According to Rehda, 400 homeowners in Selangor and 300 in Kuala Lumpur could not move into their completed houses.

However, Selangor Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Mohammad Azmin Ali denied that there was a water shortage because the state had completed the RM177.5mil Semenyih 2 Water Treatment Plant in Dengkil on March 1. He said it was just the accident that had caused the water disruption.

But the fact remains that the current water problems are beyond the state’s and even the national body’s ability to solve on their own. We have to realise that we need help, expertise and, more importantly, political will to solve the problem instead of just pointing fingers at one another.

Malaysia could seek collaborations with Asean countries to address the water concerns in a more effective manner. There is a need for an Asean Water Governance Index that provides a yardstick on the delivery of water services in the region. There should also be more planning, design and technology-sharing among Asean countries, particularly those with interconnected water resources and supply like Malaysia (Johor) and Singapore.


Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy

National University of Singapore



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