The Star, Saturday, 25 Apr 2020

AS the world grapples with the Covid-19 pandemic, health experts are stressing the importance of regular and thorough washing of hands with soap and water to reduce the risk of getting the disease and spreading the infection. This is all and well if we have access to uninterrupted supply of clean water. Last week, taps in 1,292 areas in Kuala Lumpur, Petaling, Klang, Shah Alam, Kuala Selangor, Hulu Selangor, Gombak and Kuala Langat went dry after pollution in Sungai Selangor necessitated the shutting down of water treatment plants (SSP1, SSP2, SSP3 and Rantau Panjang) that supplied these areas. Water supply was fully restored only after three days!

With little or no access to water to wash their hands, how would people be able to protect themselves in this pandemic? Government and water operators are committed to providing uninterrupted water supply to the general public as well as the industrial and agricultural sectors. Policies and programmes have been developed and initiated to meet these commitments. However, rapid urbanisation and industrialisation, increasing incidents of pollution in rivers and the impact of climate change have rendered most of these traditional approaches ineffective.

We need better policies to prevent pollution at river basins. Instead of investigating who the polluters are after the incidents, it would be more beneficial to study how they operate and stop them in their tracks. In the case mentioned here, fish rearing activities near the river were suspected of causing the pollution. If the enforcement agencies are unable to monitor our water sources for whatever reason, the policymakers need to aggressively think about engaging resident associations and communities living in riparian areas to create awareness among them of the importance of preserving water quality in the rivers.

Many regulator bodies say they want local NGOs to play an active role in promoting such awareness. This can be easily done if funds are allocated to NGOs that would then reach out to the communities and work with them. We can use the “Kita jaga kita” slogan in this case. A hotline should be made available to those living near rivers to enable them to report any activities that may pollute the water. Large cities including Los Angeles and Sao Paulo have begun to heed the warnings on climate change and water scarcity. In response, their public officials are initiating innovative solutions to conserve water, reuse wastewater and harvest rainwater.

Malaysia’s water consumption per capita has increased by four litres from 222 LCD (litres per capita per day) in 2017 to 226 LCD in 2018. We need to start consuming water wisely and stop wastage by using water-efficient products and adopting healthy consumption habits. Malaysians should start to look at integrating rainwater harvesting and reuse of wastewater technologies into new housing and office building projects as potential ways to meet future water demands. Both consumers and producers need to be aware that demand for water is getting higher while supply is becoming scarce. Enforcement agencies need to ensure that all activities along rivers are actively monitored. According to the World Wide Fund For Nature (2020), at the current water consumption rate, by 2025, two-thirds of the world’s population may face water shortages. Let us not wait for an economic shut-down due to water scarcity or pollution. Just as the world’s scientists are now trying to develop a vaccine against Covid-19, policymakers in charge of water security must study the ways and means to meet our water demands in the future.