Malaysia: Johor water woes critical


PARCHED EARTH: Water shortage caused by El Nino has affected the state and its people for the past two years, write Halim Said and Rizalman Hammim

A GHASTLY sight greets those who are given permission to enter the Congok Dam in Mersing, Johor. Resembling anything but a dam, all one sees is cracked, parched earth dotted with pools of water barely there.

The water level at the dam was at 2.5m and 2.6m this past week — dangerously below the critical level of 3.5m, thanks to the drought caused by the El Nino phenomenon, which has hit Mersing for the past two years.

The drought affected the output at the Tenglu water treatment plant, which relies on raw water sourced from the Congok Dam. The dam relies solely on rainwater to replenish its reserves.

As a result, 40,000 people in Mersing are putting up with a fifth month of water rationing.

This comes in the wake of a four-month water rationing exercise that caused hardship to 600,000 people in Pasir Gudang, Masai and part of Johor Baru last year.

Another 66,000 people in Tanjung Surat, Pantai Timur and parts of Kota Tinggi had also experienced water rationing around the same time due to the low water levels recorded at two dams in the state.

In Mersing, traders, businesses and households are the most affected by the latest round of rationing, as their taps run dry for two days before supply is resumed for a 24-hour period.

Unfortunately, the “back on” supply in certain areas in Mersing was reduced to six hours recently, compounding the people’s hardship.

The situation is as grave as it gets. In an exclusive interview with the New Straits Times last Tuesday, Sultan of Johor Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar said the recorded rainfall this year was half of last year’s.

The ruler urged industries to use recycled water, and for state authorities to look into adopting Singapore’s water management model.

The city-state is known for its sustainable water management, including its NEWater (treated used water).

With Johor’s water reserves being susceptible to weather patterns, and because 99 per cent of the state’s raw water are sourced from surface water, new sources are needed to cope with the lower rainfall.

The Johor Water Regulatory Body (Bakaj), which is responsible for managing the state’s water resources, said it had been working to protect water catchment areas.

Bakaj director Mohd Riduan Md Ali said it spared no effort to ensure water reservoirs and their catchment areas were protected.

He said Bakaj, along with the state government and other water-linked agencies, such as the state water utility SAJ Holdings Sdn Bhd, were in talks to find new water sources, including a proposal by the state government to tap underground water via tube wells.

“The state government will make the announcement on the likely location for the tube wells,” Riduan told the New Sunday Times.

He said Bakaj had been proactive in acting against those who disrupted Johor’s water supply system, including through agriculture or industrial activities that encroached into water catchment areas.

Under the Johor Water Enactment 1921, those found guilty of causing blockage or interference to the water supply system related to any dam can be fined up to RM500,000.

Riduan said anyone who wished to set up farms or industries near water catchment areas needed to get a licence from Bakaj.

He said Bakaj had fenced water catchment areas to prevent encroachment since last year.

“We began with the Upper Layang Dam in Masai where we partially fenced the 2,575ha water catchment area. The second phase involving 13km of fencing in the same area will begin by end of the year.”

He said fencing would first be done around critical dams in the state before it was expanded to other catchment areas.

“We have partially fenced the Sungai Pulai water catchment area and this has prevented encroachment.”

Riduan said Bakaj was moving to gazette all water catchment areas under its jurisdiction to further protect them.

“There were cases where the boundary of agriculture land breached the boundary of the water catchment areas.

“With the fencing and the creation of buffer zones between agricultural land and catchment areas, as well as regular checks, we have controlled the situation.”

State lines up projects, may turn to underground water

JOHOR BARU: The Johor government has lined up a number of projects to alleviate the water crisis that has plagued the state for the last few years.

During the tabling of Johor’s 2016 Budget last year, Menteri Besar Datuk Seri Mohamed Khaled Nordin said three water treatment plants would be built under a RM430 million allocation by the state government.

The plants will be built in Buloh Kasap in Segamat, Pagoh in Muar and Kahang in Kluang.

He also said all old water pipes would be replaced.

Last October, the state government approved a RM4 million project to transfer additional raw water to two dams hit by critically-low water levels.

Khaled said the project was expected to provide up to 30 million litres of additional raw water per day to the Sungai Layang and Sungai Lebam dams.

The project will transfer between 10 and 15 million litres of raw water per day (mld) via a 15.3km-long network of pipes from Sungai Papan to Sungai Lebam.

Another 15mld will be transferred via a 5km-long network of pipes from Sungai Tiram to the Sungai Layang dam.

In March, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak announced that the Federal Government had approved a RM100 million allocation for a water transfer project to channel raw water to the Sungai Layang Dam in Pasir Gudang.

Petronas is also developing the RM1.3 billion Pengerang Integrated Complex (PIC) Raw Water Supply Project (Pamer), which would churn out 260 mld.

Of this, 230 mld is for the PIC, while the remaining 30 mld would be supplied to the Sungai Lebam Reservoir to supplement the state’s water supply for public consumption in Pengerang.

The state government is exploring the possibility of using underground water as an alternative source of raw water.
State Public Works and Rural and Regional Development Committee chairman Datuk Hasni Mohammad said there was a need for the state to identify new sources of raw water to ensure continuous supply.

“Now, 99 per cent of our raw water supply comes from surface water. With the development that we are experiencing, there is a need for us to find alternative water sources and the two sources that have been identified are rainwater harvesting and underground water,” said Hasni.

He said the proposal to use underground water was made during the Johor Water Forum last year.

“During the forum, Professor Dr Kotaro Takemura from the Japan Water Forum conducted a study and found that several areas in Johor, namely Gunung Pulai and Tiram, have potential big reserves of underground water.

The state government initially planned to send a delegation to the Fukuoka and Kumamoto prefectures in Japan in April this year to explore the technology used to extract underground water.

However, the visit was postponed due to the earthquake in Kumamoto in April this year.

Most recently, the Johor government approved an immediate allocation of RM50 million to alleviate the water crisis in Mersing.

This will allow work to proceed on a 30km water transfer project to help the Tenglu Water Treatment Plant in Sungai Lenggor.

SAJ Holdings Sdn Bhd chief executive officer Abdul Wahab Abdul Hamid said under the 11th Malaysian Plan, a second dam would be built in Mersing.

Once completed, it will be the biggest dam in Mersing.

A private consultant has been appointed by the Energy, Green Technology and Water Ministry to prepare a feasibility report on the dam.

About 40,000 people in Mersing have been hit by water rationing for the past five months as severe drought had depleted the water source at the Congok Dam.

Another dam that is under construction in Kahang, near Kluang, will be completed under the 11th Malaysia Plan.

Sustaining our water resources
New Straits Times 4 Sep 16;

AVOIDING CRISIS: In the face of climate change and an increasing demand from a growing population, the country must manage its water resources efficiently to prevent water scarcity, experts tell Suzanna Pillay and Audrey Vijaindren

IN four years, Selangor, Negri Sembilan, Johor, Pahang, Kelantan, Kedah, Sabah and Sarawak will face high water stress levels if we do not change the way we manage our water.

Although it is unlikely that the country will run out of water, the Association of Water and Energy Research (Awer) believes that if we continue with our current trend of logging and pollution, we will run out of good quality raw water by 2020.

“Are we willing to pay the price for treating heavily polluted water?” its president, S. Piarapakaran, asks.

“We need to accept that drought is part and parcel of our climate. In addition, a drastic increase in population and economic activity density make it harder to meet the increasing demand for treated and raw water.

“This is a major phenomenon in the world. Water resources are usually far away from demand zones with high population density. What we need to manage is the demand for water.”

Awer presented some of its findings and solutions to tackle these issues during the Finance Ministry’s Budget Focus Group meeting several weeks ago.

The association is hoping its suggestions will be adopted so that Malaysia can prepare for and tackle water issues.

“Water shortages happen because of low rainfall and the failure to protect water catchment areas,” Piarapakaran says, adding that some states allow water catchment areas to be converted into plantations.

“There are also cases where flood mitigation dams are used as raw water sources for water treatment plants, a purpose which they are not designed for.”

Other reasons for water shortages, he adds, include the shutting down of treatment plants because of pollution to their raw water sources.

“Our main problem is in managing our water sources. We have the tendency to convert water catchment areas into plantations. Oil palm and rubber trees may have green leaves, but they cannot function as a water catchment facility,” he says, citing Gemencheh Dam in Negri Sembilan as a good example of this.

The dam, he adds, fails to function because its catchment area is converted into a plantation.

“A back pumping system costing more than RM30 million was constructed to pump murky water from Sungai Jelai to the dam.

“Murky water will cause higher siltation which, in turn, causes the dam to become shallow faster.

“Why should we pay for the failure of state governments to protect water catchment areas? The water catchment area for the Langat 2 Water Treatment Plant and Water Reticulation System in Selangor is facing the same problem.”

The failure to increase waste water discharge standards in tandem with development also causes water woes.

Piarapakaran says the Department of Environment must study waste water discharge standards based on pollution loading factors.

Centre for Environment, Technology and Development chairman Gurmit Singh describes the water management system in the country as “fragmented”.

“We are in this situation because we have badly managed our surface water resources. On top of that, we have the dichotomy between the federal and state governments.

“Most state governments have failed to protect and maintain their water catchment areas. This compromises and adversely affects our reservoirs and water supply. We rely on surface water, but much of it is being wasted through badly maintained and burst pipes.”
But, he says Malaysia has not reached the stage where it needs to resort to underground water sources.

Gurmit calls for more efficient irrigation practices, as this will mean more water for consumers.

He also suggests that industries be supplied with raw, not treated water.

“They do not need high-quality water because they mainly use it for cooling purposes.”

Water issue causes sleepless nights for ruler
New Straits Times 4 Sep 16;

SULTAN of Johor Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar, in an interview with the New Straits Times last week, revealed that water is a big issue for Johor.

“Yes, it is a very big issue. We are not managing our water.

A few years ago, I had cautioned my government about an impending water crisis.” The ruler said the biggest mistake Johor ever made was to privatise Syarikat Air Johor.

“Don’t blame my menteri besar; he came later. Now, me and my MB are cracking our heads to solve this problem. It is an issue that causes me sleepless nights.”

Sultan Ibrahim also said the recorded rainfall this year was half of last year’s. “You can ride a bicycle in the Congok Dam in Mersing.

The two dams there have dried up. There is no rain. There is even water rationing in Mersing town. So, we had to take a bit of water that was meant for Singapore.”

He said the state did not have to look further than Singapore to learn how to manage water. “Don’t be shy. Why must we look to faraway countries to learn? It would be a waste of government money.

We must have recycled water for industrial use.” The ruler said there were industries in Pasir Gudang which consumed a lot of water, amounting to nearly RM4 million of water a month. “They get water, but the housing estate next door has no water.

How do the people feel (about this)? You can’t simply transfer water from one river to another.

“While we want development, we must take care of nature to ensure that future generations are not affected.

I have asked companies to work with the state to come up with solutions to overcome the water issues affecting Johor immediately.”

Preventing a water crisis
New Straits Times 4 Sep 16;

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.

No end in sight for despondent Mersing folk

JOHOR BARU: When residents of Mersing were first hit by a water shortage, they braced themselves for several dry days.

What they did not expect, however, was for those dry days to last five months.

Restaurant operator Nita Halini Mohamed, 40, who lives in Jalan Endau, Mersing, said her business suffered a slump as the water supply had gone from bad to worse over the past few months.

“We thought rationing in Mersing would be the same as in other areas and would improve in due time, but we were wrong.”
Nita collects up to 20 buckets of water a day.

“I need clean water for my restaurant and the water shortage has affected my business.”

Mersing is the latest district in the state to be hit by a water crisis, following a prolonged drought caused by the El Nino phenomenon, which caused water level at the Congok Dam to dip way below the critical level.

Last year, residents in Pasir Gudang, Masai and part of Johor Baru were affected.

Residents in parts of Kluang are midway through a month-long rationing because of the low water level of Sungai Sembrong Kiri, which supplies raw water to the Sembrong Timur water treatment plant.

Another Mersing resident, Rohani Mohd, 40, said she had experienced four days without water supply, even though the rationing roster stated that water supply would resume every third day.

“I live in Kampung Seri Pantai, which is on higher ground. Most areas like mine are not getting enough supply due to low water pressure.”

She had been relying on water storage tanks at home, and had to call SAJ Holdings, the state water utility, for additional water supply.

Kampung Benaung Mersing resident Razila Affandi, 25, said her neighbourhood relied on water from water tankers because of low pressure.

“We are allowed 100 litres of water a day during collection days. Collecting water is a daunting task.”

Razila was shocked to learn that water supply had now been reduced to only six hours every three days under the rationing.

“I hope that the state government knows that Mersing is facing a serious water shortage and is working to ease the people’s suffering.”

Sani Ahmad, 54, from Pasir Gudang, said he hoped he did not have to experience another round of rationing after more than four months of putting up with disrupted supply.

“It is a big hassle for most of us, especially the elderly.”

A food stall operator in Taman Sri Lambak, Kluang, who wanted to be known only as Misiah, said it was hard to run an eatery without water.

“What are we going to do when we need to clean up the food stall? How are we to wash the dishes?”

Endau assemblyman Datuk Abd Latif Bandi urged residents in Mersing to be patient as the state government was taking short- and long-term measures to address the water shortage there. Endau is one of two state constituencies in the Mersing parliamentary constituency.

Latif, who is state Housing and Local Government Committee chairman, said the RM50 million project to transfer raw water to the Tenglu water treatment plant was under way and would be completed in six to seven months.

SAJ Holdings chief executive officer Abdul Wahab Abdul Hamid said it was working around the clock and was deploying water tankers to ensure water supply reached every consumer in the district.

He said the current capacity of Congok Dam was one million cubic metres, but the Federal Government planned to double the capacity and the tender process for this upgrade would start in two months.

He said this was in addition to the new dam that would be built by the Federal Government in Mersing as a long-term measure to solve the water supply issue in the district.

Education is the best solution

MANAGEMENT of water, the conflict of interest between state and federal agencies, privatisation of water distribution and high usage by consumers are major factors of water issues.

“When it comes to protecting water sources, such as the highlands and water catchment areas, we have failed miserably,” says Malaysian environmental non-governmental organisations’ chairperson and EcoKnights president Yasmin Rasyid.

“Everyone — the government, media and public — does not fully understand that water availability is highly dependant on our forests. The more we clear our forests, the less rainwater will be retained.

“Another problem is that the water issue has been politicised.”

She says during the height of the Selangor water crisis two years ago, consumers were still using an average of 250 litres of water per person daily, despite the rationing plan implemented by the state.

Only 30 per cent of that number were for actual consumption, such as cooking and drinking.

A report published by the Malaysian Nature Society Selangor branch in 2009 revealed that in Southeast Asia, Selangor’s water withdrawal per capita for domestic consumption was higher than all countries in the region at 91.6 cubic metres per capita. (See table).

Yasmin believes rainwater harvesting is crucial to tackle water issues, but it can work only if everyone is on board.

“It’s not effective if only 100 people do it. But, imagine if 15 million people harvest rainwater and save 50 per cent of storm water, that will reduce our reliance on piped water by 50 per cent. We are not just saving on water bills, but also reducing the risk of flooding.

“Selangor needs to enforce this so that industries will harvest rainwater for non-potable uses.

“Malaysia does not have data on when it will run out of drinkable water. Tokyo has reserves enough to last for decades if water is cut off from the city. Singapore also has reserves. They are adapting to climate change. This shows their resilience.

“But we don’t even know how much groundwater we have that can be used. This is how unprepared we are. It’s shameful because we have abundant rainfall, yet we fail to manage our water resources well.

“Water tariffs need to be revised or even increased to force consumers to manage their usage wisely. Selangor should not be giving away free water.

“There is also a need to address this at a national level. Rivers travel through states — we need to look at the river ecosystem as a whole and not divide its management according to states.”

Malaysian Water Partnership special project committee member Amlir Ayat concurs.

“A lack of education on water management is the main cause of water woes in the country. There’s insufficient emphasis on the importance of sustainable water management and ethics. People are not taught or given enough information on how to use water wisely.”

This, he says, leads to overconsumption and wastage. Increased water pollution from uncontrolled industrial and development activities is also a major concern.

Amlir is convinced that water demand management is one of the best approaches to minimising water consumption and pollution in the country, especially in Selangor.

“There is actually enough water in Selangor. However, ignorance and apathy will lead to water scarcity.

“Lembaga Urus Air Selangor, the state’s main water management authority, has done a good job, but it needs the support of other agencies to ensure sustainable water management in Selangor is achieved.”

Amlir says the country may run out of clean, drinkable water in 10 years if the current trend continues.

He says the 4E approach needs to be adopted:

ENFORCEMENT — the use of legal means to control, minimise and stop pollution, especially in industrial and commercial sectors;

ENGINEERING — the use of technical or engineering methods, such as pollutant traps and river water treatment plants;
ECONOMIC or fiscal approaches — giving incentives for industries or commercial entities to apply green technology to reduce water pollution or consumption; and,

EDUCATION — the most important and inexpensive approach is also the most effective in the long term.

Amlir says in many developed countries where water consumption is low and water pollution is manageable, water education has been taking place for decades.

“Almost all water issues are due to a lack of understanding and awareness. Education is the main solution.”