Get water supply priorities right

When water supply department was moved from the Ministry of Works to the new Ministry of Energy, Water and Communications in March this year, the Minister, Datuk Seri Dr Lim Keng Yaik, has announced a number of initiatives to revamp the water supply sector in this country.

Amongst them were the deferment of water supply privatization projects until after the setting up of the National Water Commission (NWC), the establishment of benchmarks for water supply services and more recently, the decision to renegotiate the terms of the various water concession contracts for better deals in public interest.

Datuk Seri Dr Lim also announced that the privatization of the water industry in this country would follow the UK model, which uses an independent regulator to review and amend all business plans including applications of tariffs revisions submitted by the privatized water companies. The NWC, expected to be set up by the end of the year, would act as a regulator in Malaysia.

The proposed revamp as announced by Datuk Seri Dr Lim is most welcome. If words were translated into deeds, an open and transparent system would emerge in future where all parties could enjoy the benefits of privatization.

But many knowledgeable in and closely following the subject wonder if the Minister's advisers have got their priorities right with regard to the urgency of having to transfer water from Pahang to meet the projected water shortage in Selangor in 2008.

After the completion of the Sungei Selangor Phase 3 next year, the total available supply would satisfy demand only up to year 2007. Beyond that, additional supply will depend entirely on the timely completion of the mammoth Pahang/Selangor interstate project as all available water sources in Selangor have been developed.

This scheme was identified in the early 1990s and the design works were to have started in 1999 with construction scheduled to commence in 2001 for completion in 2006. But up to now no one knows when the construction is going to kick off. Even if the project starts now it will only be completed in 2010, missing the target by three years!

But when asked in an interview with The Edge (Issue 505, July 5) whether Selangor will face a water shortage in 2008, the Minister said: "I don't believe so ….. If they don't reduce the NRW of 45%, if they don't look for new sources of water, [then yes, it will happen]. I can't believe that no river in Selangor can be used [to draw water]. If we tried cleaning up the rivers, the by 2008 we might get most of the water back from Selangor river. When somebody says cannot, am I to accept that? If we clean up the rivers, reduce NRW and look for alternative sources of water, we have enough water by 2008. We only need another 900 mld [million litres per day] of water."

With due respect, let me respond to the minister.

On cleaning up the rivers

Our river intakes are already as far downstream as we can go so that their catchment areas are as large as possible. Cleaning up these catchment areas will undoubtedly give us cleaner water, possible at lower cost. But it will not give us any additional water. Going further downstream will face very heavy pollution from built-up areas and problems of salinity. Admittedly, the former can be overcome as per Singapore's example of "newater". But is that what we want?

On alternative sources of water

There is little groundwater in Peninsular Malaysia - certainly not in the quantities to meet the huge demands of today. This can be seen on the hydrogeological maps published by the Geological Survey Department of Malaysia. The best that can be expected is 1.2mld from a well in alluvium "generally along coastal areas" and "brackish in certain areas". Further inland, in limestone, shale, to igneous rocks, the yield drops to as little as 0.24 mid. The availability of groundwater in Selangor is therefore insignificant in the context of current demand of 3,700mld - and doubling every 10 years!

During the 1998 water crisis, a number of attempts were made to explore this alternative source of water and all had come to naught.

On reducing NRW

NRW is that amount of treated water put into the distribution systems and earns no revenue. It is presented as a percentage of the volume of water put into the distribution. It has three main components, namely leakage in the pipe networks, pilferage and water meter under-registration.

In the national NRW study carried out in 1988, the overall 1987 NRW level in Selangor was assessed to be 45%, of which 35% was due to pipe leakage. In an article in the latest Buletin Ingenieur published by The Board of Engineers Malaysia, V. Subramanian, Pengurus Besar Operasi, PUAS, reported that, for the year 2002, NRW in Selangor was calculated to be 44% of which 16 % was due to pilferage and unmetered usage such as for fire-fighting and mains scouring. If meter under-registration amounted to 4%, the balance of 24% of NRW was due to pipe leakage.

Now, firstly, reducing NRW by changing meters and controlling pilferage would not result in addition water for consumption but would only increase the revenue of the water undertaking. This is because the same quantity of water will be used by the consumers; the only difference is that they will have to pay for it. However, NRW reduction and control should form part and parcel of water distribution network maintenance in all water undertakings.

Secondly, in an area where NRW is high, as in Selangor, the first 10% to 15% of reduction in NRW (to 30%) is not too difficult to achieve. But to reduce it to less than 20% would not be economically viable, as the law of diminishing returns would then apply. Therefore the benchmark for NRW in the current revamp of the water industry should be set at 25%.

The crucial question that now arises is whether Selangor can reduce its NRW from the present 44% to 25% by 2008?

Let's take a look at its performance in NRW control programs carried out so far:

Following the 1988 national NRW study Selangor initiated several small-scale programs during the late 80s and early 90s. But the initial success could not be maintained for long and NRW was soon back to where it was. This failure could very well be due to a lack of political will because NRW projects yield only invisible results and are not glamorous projects like the building of dams. The good news now is that there will be no lack of political will with Datuk Seri Dr. Lim at the helm.

In year 2000, the Selangor state government awarded a NRW reduction contract to a local/British joint-venture company to reduce NRW throughout the whole of Selangor and Kuala Lumpur. In a report published in a Malaysian Water Association bulletin, it was a lump sum contract valued at RM395.1 million and based on an agreed performance target of reducing NRW by 200mld after the completion of the contract period in 2009, a mere 4% reduction in overall NRW! If this target is reached, the proportional saving in pipe leakage is just over 100mld, insufficient to offset the water deficit in year 2008 and beyond.

Therefore, my contention is that Datuk Seri Dr. Lim must have been wrongly advised in the belief that the expected 2008 water shortage in Selangor could be overcome by cleaning up the rivers, find alternative water sources and reducing NRW.

The Hobson's choice is still the complex and expensive inter-basin water transfer from Pahang. But even if this scheme starts tomorrow, it is hardly possible for it to be on stream when Selangor needs the additional water by 2008.

Besides the delay in the implementation of this interstate water transfer project, another area of concern is the project's estimated cost. When the design of this scheme started in 1999, the total cost was estimated at less than RM3 billion; and even during the first half of this year it was still not more than RM4 billion. However, from the recent report in the local dailies, the estimate has suddenly escalated to RM10 billion! God only knows what the cost will be if the project is further delayed.

From all the above, it would be more prudent to implement water projects early in order to meet demand well before the situation becomes critical, as will be the case for Selangor in 2008. And this should be done first while the long-term overall revamp of the water industry in this country is being looked into.


The above was published in The Edge (Issue 510, August 9,2004). 2007