Sunday, 27 April 2014

How to keep the water flowing

By June H.l. Wong, Published The Straits Times, 25 Apr 2014

THE present method of dealing with the ongoing water crisis is in dribs and drabs. What Malaysia needs is to learn water resource management from other countries, and better do it fast.

What fools we Malaysians are. What wasteful, short-sighted fools!

I came to this conclusion after learning about the Singapore water story a couple of weeks ago and from conversations with my sister visiting from Sydney on how New South Wales coped with prolonged drought in the state.

First, Singapore and its water supply. I was down south for a meeting of Asia News Network newspaper editors, which included a field trip to the PUB, the national water agency.

I didn't think it would be interesting, but as the briefing by PUB director George Madhavan unfolded, I found myself lapping up the story about a nation that worked out a 50-year plan to ensure its water security.

The plan, known as the "Four National Taps", was to build "a robust and diversified supply of water", derived from local catchment, imported from Johor, recycled through technology (called Newater) and desalination.

The aim was simple but ambitious: collect every drop of rain, every drop of used water and recycle every drop more than once.

And that is done through two separate systems. The first is a comprehensive network of drains, canals and rivers that collects rainwater which is stored in 17 reservoirs before it is treated for drinking.

Two-thirds of the land area is water catchment, which "makes Singapore one of the few countries in the world to harvest urban storm water on a large scale for its water supply", says the PUB website.

The other system collects used water. It is recycled, using membrane technology and ultraviolet disinfection, into high-grade reclaimed Newater.

It's so clean, it's safe to drink and industries love it.

Singapore is still getting water from Johor but the Government plans to be weaned off that supply when the second water agreement expires in 2061. By which time, desalination should provide 25 per cent of the state's water needs.

Simultaneously, a lot of effort goes into educating the public and the young on water conservation.

Clearly, the Singapore model has worked because a two-month drought at the beginning of the year did not dent its water supply. There was no rationing or dry taps in the city.

I got another lesson in water management from Down Under.

My sister and her family, who live in Sydney, came back to celebrate our dad's 87th birthday and ran smack into our sorry state of water rationing.

Like others, I thought rationing was the only solution, but it really has not helped as Malaysia has reduced water usage only by a measly 7 per cent.

That's because Malaysians haven't changed their habits, and affected residents are storing water like mad for the dry days.

But my sister said that even with a prolonged drought in New South Wales, the government did not resort to rationing. It introduced water restrictions instead.

Despite the near critical levels in their dams and reservoirs, their water supply was never turned off. Instead, the government issued measures on how water could be used and people abided by them.

As my sister explained, in Australia a lot of water is used externally to water lawns, wash cars and fill swimming pools.

With restrictions in place, that meant no washing your car unless it was with a bucket. It became almost a badge of honour to drive around in a dirty, dusty car.

Garden-proud Australians lived with dried-up flower beds and brown lawns because if anyone tried watering them, they would be reported to the authorities - by their neighbours!

Public education and societal pressure ensured that people took it upon themselves to behave responsibly and follow the rules on restricting the use of water.

Although water restrictions have eased off as there has been good rainfall of late, the Australian authorities are planning ahead for when it could turn dry again.

There are subsidies for people who buy rainwater storage tanks for their homes and workplaces. Regulations are in place that require new housing developments to have dual water supply systems - one for drinking water and another for "grey" water, which is recycled water that's not clean enough for drinking and cooking but good enough for external watering and washing.

Equally importantly, Australians pay a hefty price for their water. My sister's quarterly water bill is A$200 (S$252). But what she gets is very high-quality clean water that can be drunk from the tap.

As a science teacher, my sister runs a programme called Stream­watch in her school that monitors pollution in the local creek. Her students are taught to regularly test the quality of the water and report anything suspicious they find.

She says all the waterways, streams and creeks are mapped out and assigned to schools, local community groups and volunteers to monitor water pollution.

Of course you may say it makes sense for Singaporeans on their tiny island and Australians living in one of the world's driest continents to be obsessive about water.

In contrast, we in tropical Malaysia have plenty of rain, so why worry. Well, folks, time to rethink everything we know about water. Climate change has made weather and rainfall patterns unpredictable and there are no guarantees any more as thousands of households now know.

Water has become such a precious resource that wars in this century will most likely be fought over it.

That's the premise of the book, Water: The Epic Struggle For Wealth, Power And Civilization, in which author Steven Solomon argues that water will surpass oil - the cause of many 20th century conflicts - as the world's most critical dwindling resource.

Already, foreign investors are wondering what went wrong with Malaysia's resource planning.

The CEO of a multinational food and beverage company told me: "When we invested in this country, we never thought we would have to worry about the water supply. If this situation is not resolved, we are looking at 2,000 people losing their jobs."

Imagine, no water can also mean no jobs. It's such a scary thought, I could do with a drink.


The writer is The Star's group chief editor.

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