Water, Water, Everywhere? Part 2

Dirty Water

Not too long ago if you go to a government office to get an application form, it would be left either in a tray or in a box for you to take and you would see each person taking more forms than they needed.  Some would end up as kacang puteh wrappers sold by kacang puteh peddlers on bicycles parked outside the very government office.

BECAUSE THEY WERE FREE!

Nowadays, you have to pay RM1 per form, and you can see that each person would take only one form.  Anything that is free has no value.

What I am getting at is, if you give something to someone for free, most of the time it would go to waste, or taken for granted.  The same goes to the free first 20 cubic meters of water given to residents of Selangor by the Pakatan Rakyat government.  In the words of Prof Dr Chan Ngai Weng (Universiti Sains Malaysia and Penang Water Watch):

“The water policy of that (Selangor) state is suicidal!”

He said this during the 1st Malaysian Water Association – Universiti Teknologi Malaysia Roundtable Dialogue titled “Water Has No Value” on Friday, 28th October 2011.

Interestingly, the Seceretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-Moon also underscored this point.  On 3rd August 2011, he told the United Nations General Assembly that water, as Basic Human Right, has a market price.

“Let us be clear,” he asserted, “a right to water and sanitation does not mean that water should be free.”

Let us face the fact.  Water really has no value in Malaysia. On average the water tariff in Malaysia is at 20 US cents per liter or 60 sen.  An average person in Malaysia uses 203 liters per day.  In a month the person would be using up to 6 cubic meters of water.  An average Malaysian family (5 members) would then use up to 30 cubic meters per month.  Therefore, an average family will be paying RM18.27 per month for the use of treated water.  That is the equivalent of an hour and a half of calls from your mobile phone.  You cannot even take the NKVE from KL to Shah Alam and back on that amount.   Water tariffs in Malaysia simply does not meet the cost of producing treated water for the masses.  Therefore, the water service providers in Malaysia really need to look at restructuring the water tariff by increasing the tariffs to a level that reflects the cost price, and a surcharge for those who use more treated water than the national per capita average.  The public will also have to be educated on the cost of water treatment and production through engagement sessions with SPAN, NGOs and the service providers.

Apart from that, the service providers would also have to prove to consumers that it has taken steps to plug Non-Revenue Water (NRW).  Mind you, we have some 131,000km of water pipelines, 25% of those are made from asbestos-cement and they can easily deteriorate, crack or break altogether.  Our average NRW stands at 36%.  The Asian Development Bank stated that in Asian cities, the NRW averages 30% of water production, but ranges from 4% to 65%, posing as a deterrent to the recovery of production costs.  To plug NRW is costly but has to be done to the point where it would be economically viable to do so.  The panelists of the above dialogue agreed that 25% would be the acceptable level of NRW for Malaysia, and that should be the target for water service providers to achieve over the next few years.

South-East Asia's NRW 2003 (% of System Input)

Another challenge is to protect the water catchment areas.  The value chain starts at water catchment areas and therefore it is imperative that state governments take steps to protect these areas by gazetting them under a specific Act for Water Catchment Areas, and not as it is now, under the Forestry Act.  We often find water resources polluted by human activities in these areas such as logging (legal and illegal), farming, plantation, manufacturing, animal husbandry and indiscriminate dumping of rubbish despite having these areas gazetted under the Forestry Act.  Therefore, protecting water catchment areas is vital to ensure clean and continuous water supply.  The general public needs to be educated on the importance of preserving water catchment areas so they could act as the extra eyes and ears for enforcement authorities.

The biggest challenge, of course, is to depoliticize water.  Water, like the nuclear issue, should best be left to the experts, and not politicians who are self-proclaimed experts.  The current tussle on various water issues by both the ruling government and the opposition over the Langat 2 project is not helping, nor is the war on who has the lowest water tariffs.  When Penang increased its water tariffs, it was the best move yet it was politically lambasted by the BN government.  Face the fact: things are not getting any cheaper and the same goes to the treatment and supply of water.  And to the Selangor state government, stop hoodwinking the public any further.  Based on a projection up to July 2011, the water supply in Selangor is at 4,122 million liters per day (MLD) while the existing capacity is only at 4,326 MLD.  That gives us all a mere 1,204 MLD or 4.7% buffer.  If anything were to happen to any two water treatment plants in Selangor, our taps will run dry for several days at least.  Therefore, the Langat 2 treatment plant needs to be built like yesterday already.

Remember: Malaria, Tuberculosis, rising food prices, environmental degradation – all these have a common denominator: WATER.

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