When the tide goes out: Challenges of the water industry


WATER is the essence of life.

Though Malaysia is blessed with abundant water resources, the country is experiencing an alarming increase in demand for water supply in recent years. Many seem to take this natural resource for granted, while often having the misconception that supplying clean water would be cheap and easy.

Malaysia’s water operators are facing many challenges in ensuring consumers have continuous access to clean water and in ensuring a sustainable water future. Understanding these challenges is key to recognising the shared responsibilities of safeguarding this precious natural resource.

Quality of raw water

According to research by the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) on Malaysian freshwater, about 97% of the country’s raw water supply comes from rivers.

Most water treatment plants in the country process raw water from the rivers, but many of these water bodies are polluted because of human activities.

Whenever raw water sources are polluted, treatment plants may need to be shut down when the pollution exceeds the safe parameter threshold allowed in a treatment process or in other words, exceeds the treatment process capability.

Garbage, chemical and organic wastes, as well as effluents that end up in our rivers, are major sources of water pollution in the country.

Water operators such as Air Selangor have invested in installing water quality sensors at the upstream of their water treatment plants to detect pollutants in the river. When pollutants are detected, the system will trigger an alert to allow for early intervention and timely remedial action to prevent the polluted water from flowing into the plant.

However, these sensors have their own limitations, such as not all types of pollutants in the river can be detected or can pass through it.

The public must also be more vigilant in protecting our rivers, acting as the eyes and ears of the local authorities to report suspicious activities near water sources.

“In reference to the recent pollution incident in Sungai Batang Benar, the shared responsibility falls on at least 10 federal and state agencies such as the Jabatan Alam Sekitar, Suruhanjaya Pengurusan Air Negara (SPAN), PDRM, Lembaga Urus Air Selangor, local councils and many others,” said Environment and Water Ministry secretary-general Datuk Seri Dr Zaini Ujang in an interview.

Impact of climate change

But pollution from human activities are just one aspect – climate change also affects the complexity of water treatment.

Climate change has altered the availability, quantity and quality of global water supply and cycle. Some of its effects include longer drought period and heavier than usual rainfall.

While the latter can indirectly contribute to an increase in raw water supply, heavy rainfall affects the soil’s ability to retain water. Rainwater run-off such as rubbish, twigs/leaves, grease and soil from the surface will flow into the river, resulting in murkier water that lowers its quality.

Treating murky water is a more complex process. A water treatment plant may need to be shut down or reduce the rate of inflow into the plant when it cannot process water that has high turbidity level. Therefore, to ensure continuous supply water operators have no choice but to reduce their dependability on a single raw water source, while working towards increasing its operational capability, which comes with a high investment cost.

As part of its strategy to increase resilience and capabilities in storing raw water source, Air Selangor commissioned new off-river storage (ORS) and hybrid off-river augmentation storage (HORAS) facilities.

Its HORAS 600 near Sungai Selangor can provide additional 300 million litres raw water per day to the Sungai Selangor Water Treatment Plant (WTP). Another one of its major undertakings is the construction of modern downstream water treatment plants, namely the Semenyih 2 and Labohan Dagang WTPs.

Dr Zaini also shared that in relation to the abovementioned incident, the Semenyih 2 WTP continued to produce treated water as usual, although it receives raw source from the same river. This is because the Semenyih 2 WTP harnesses unpolluted stored raw water from the ORS.

In future, raw water supply from Takungan Air Pinggiran Sungai and HORAS facilities will enable water treatment plants to continue operating even when rivers are polluted or impacted by climate change.

Even with the new approach of locating new water treatment plant further downstream, Air Selangor’s capabilities to cope with the projected demand is dependent on its water reserve margin, which stood at 11% as at December 2019.

With greater need to consistently supply safe and clean water, a larger investment is required in expanding the nation’s existing water treatment infrastructures. However, a limited operational budget and no tariff increase in years have hampered water operators’ efforts to increase operational capabilities to meet the demand.

Still, efforts to control climate change is everyone’s responsibility.

“There is an immediate need to address climate change. Together, we need to create awareness to reduce impact on the climate. This can also be a continuous effort and strategy on how we can steer mindsets towards green living lifestyles,” said Prof Dr Sumiani Yusoff, University Malaya’s Institute of Ocean and Earth Sciences.

Cost of treating water

According to SPAN, the cost to treat 1,000 litres (one cubic metre [m3]) of water stands at RM2.31 while the average tariff imposed on domestic users in Malaysia is only RM0.52 per m3 for the first 20 m3 of water used.

On average, a household uses about 20 m3 of water a month, which translates to about RM10.40 of billed consumption monthly, when in fact, the actual cost to treat and supply water is at RM46.20.

In comparison, domestic consumers in Singapore for instance, are charged S$1.21 (RM3.62) per m3 for the first 40 m3. For every 20m3 water used, Singaporeans will have to pay S$24.20 (RM87.60), including a 50% water conservation tax and fixed waterborne fee per m3 of water used. The water conservation tax is imposed to encourage Singaporeans to conserve water and to be conscious of the scarcity of water.

Many are not aware of the high cost and risks that the water operators in Malaysia face in providing continuous and sustainable clean water supply.

For example, the estimated cost for Air Selangor to replace 1km of pipe is approximately RM1mil. There are 6,000 km of old asbestos cement (AC) pipes registered in its distribution system.

Air Selangor has to mobilise additional efforts and financial resources to monitor and maintain these ageing pipes. Managing the condition of the distribution network is an ongoing effort that water operators have to take because ageing assets will inherently cause an increase in leakage, which is the main cause for non-revenue water (NRW) losses.

To date, Air Selangor maintains and services a total of 29,270km of pipeline to distribute water to more than 8.4 million consumers in Selangor, Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya.

Therefore, to meet future supply-demand growth and to ensure a sustainable future for water industry, Air Selangor has committed to investing RM35.4 billion over the span of 30 years as part of its capital expenditure planning, following its strategic plans and initiatives.

These include projects to build new water source and treatment plants, upgrade of existing water supply facilities, reduction of leakages/NRW, replacement of ageing pipes and implementation of water conservation programmes.

Towards a sustainable future for water

Water operators nationwide can work together to recommend potential changes to the regulatory framework and policies on areas that can positively impact the industry.

Cooperation could be established in the field of education and risk assessment as well as information sharing between state water operators and SPAN for instance, regarding transboundary (intra-states) risks and future threats.

Water operators can also explore advanced technologies brought by the Industry 4.0 to solve the long-standing water management challenges in the country. Digitalisation can provide the means for water operators to develop secure, sustainable and resilient water resources together with effective asset management.

While water operators are responsible for exploring and implementing technologies to meet the growing water supply demand, this alone is not enough to ensure the sustainability of the water industry future in Malaysia.

According to SPAN, the domestic water consumption in Selangor as at 2018 is 233 litres average per capita, relatively higher than the 165 litres recommended by the United Nations.

The public can play an active part in conserving water. Adopting water-saving practices in our lifestyle, using water more efficiently and prudently can positively impact the raw water sources and supply availability in the long run.





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