Malaysian minister’s call to tap groundwater reserves rebuffed

EILEEN NG Today Online 21 Apr 16;

SINGAPORE/KUALA LUMPUR — A Malaysian Deputy Minister suggested yesterday that the country tap into groundwater reserves to avert a looming water crisis in its northern states, but this was refuted by a water expert, who said any mass-scale move to do so will further deplete surface water levels such as rivers.

Malaysia’s Deputy Minister for Energy, Green Technology and Water, James Dawos Mamit, said the country has vast reserves of untapped groundwater, and utilising it would help as many as 4 million people in the states of Kedah, Perlis, Penang and Perak, which are currently facing a threat of water shortage due to the ongoing drought.

“This is not a fanciful solution. In fact, the state of Kelantan, which draws 70 per cent of its water (from the ground), is a textbook example of how groundwater can be relied on for water security,” said Mr Mamit. “We need to reduce our need on surface water as it is subject to adverse weather conditions such as pollution and the current El Nino phenomenon.”

Groundwater is drawn from underground sources while surface water, on which Malaysia largely depends, is from sources such as lakes and rivers.

According to the World Bank, Malaysia has about 19,396 cubic metres of renewable underground resources per capita, consisting of internal rivers and groundwater.

Mr Mamit said new solutions were needed to cope with increasing consumer demand for water.

“We need to be creative. Most developed countries depend on groundwater supplies, which are not vulnerable to evaporation the way water stored at dams are,” he said.

However, Mr S Piarapakaran, president of the Association of Water and Energy Research Malaysia, told TODAY that Mr Mamit’s suggestion is “not feasible”.

He said any large-scale extraction of groundwater will adversely impact river levels as groundwater is usually located near existing river basins. He added that groundwater levels are replenished through rainfall, which entered the soil. The process is known as recharge rate, but rampant logging and clearing of forests have reduced the recharge rate drastically.

Mr Piarapakaran, an environmental engineer, also said groundwater extraction may cause dormant chemicals in the soil to move, and this could cause water contamination. “I really hope the Deputy Minister (will) do his homework and come up with more details before issuing such statements,” he said.

Malaysia has been enveloped in a sweltering heatwave that saw the temporary closure of schools and slowed vegetable production, leading to price hikes. Paddy fields, durian and rubber plantations have also been affected by the severe temperatures, and water levels at dams and water treatment plants have been decreasing.

On Monday, the CEO of Penang Water Supply Corporation (PBAPP), Mr Jaseni Maidinsa, said the Malaysian government needs to come up with an action plan within the next 30 days to deal with the current drought, before the dams and rivers supplying water to Perlis, Kedah, Penang and north Perak dry up. Water rationing has begun in some states, such as Perlis on Saturday and Johor on Monday.

Yesterday, a Democratic Action Party (DAP) Member of Parliament, Charles Santiago, warned that the Klang Valley — which includes the state of Selangor, Malaysia’s capital Kuala Lumpur and the country’s administrative capital of Putrajaya — can face a water crisis in about six weeks as the water reserves in the Sungai Selangor and Sungai Semenyih water dams are dropping. He said in 43 days, the water reserves at the Sungai Selangor dam could drop below its critical level of 40 per cent.

At the start of March, the dams had a capacity of 95.47 per cent and 93.19 per cent respectively.

However, the levels in the dams currently stand at 66.73 per cent and 70.65 per cent respectively. “On a daily basis, the Sungai Selangor and Semenyih dams are diminishing at a rate of 0.62 per cent and 0.47 per cent,” said Mr Santiago. with agencies

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