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Water-saving devices. Incorrectly laid pipes and faulty metres cost states millions, but Penang has managed to maintain the lowest non-revenue water rates in the country.


Making Sure Penang’s Taps Keep Flowing

Water security is an increasing concern for governments worldwide. How is Penang doing, and what can it expect?

We are a thirsty species. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that each person requires between 50 litres and 100 litres daily to meet basic health and sanitation needs[1]. Access to safe water is a human necessity, but one that remains out of reach for many. An estimated one billion people globally lack access to suitable drinking water, and growing scarcity is expected to be a main driver of conflict throughout this century[2]. For development, quality of life and political stability, therefore, governments must guarantee water security for their people.

So what does the future of Penang’s water supply look like? That depends. But to be sure, our current water usage is definitely unsustainable.


Penang is Malaysia’s thirstiest state. According to the Penang Water Supply Corporation (PBA), Penang’s water consumption is simply “too high[3]”. At 293 litres per capita per day, the state’s domestic consumption is the highest in the country, exceeding the national average of 210 litres[4]. This is not good news for a state with limited raw water sources. PBA’s goal is to reduce daily consumption from 293 litres per capita to 260 “as soon as possible[5]”.

In a joint statement with Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng, PBA estimated that “Penang should have sufficient water until 2025 … if people and businesses used water wisely[6]”.

Avoiding water rationing “at all costs” has become an explicit goal of the state government[7]. Despite an unusually long dry season, Penang was able to avoid rationing in 2014-2015. By contrast, KL, Selangor, Putrajaya, Negeri Sembilan, Johor and even Taiping – often cited as the wettest town in Malaysia – were forced to impose rationing[8].

Cautious management has helped Penang avoid such drastic measures so far, but this has involved difficult political decisions for the state government – most notably the raising of water tariffs in 2014. These tariffs had been unchanged since 1993[9].

PBA’s review affected both domestic and trade tariffs. The latter is significant, as consumption by some 77,693 trade users accounts for 41% of the state’s total water usage[10]. Trade tariffs subsidise domestic usage, but need to be kept low to maintain Penang’s competitive edge as a regional business destination. Ensuring Penang’s continued water supply beyond 2025 will definitely require more than tariff hikes.

Salient Solutions

The Sungai Perak Raw Water Transfer Scheme (SPRWTS) is a key part of Penang’s long-term water strategy. According to Lim: We need the SPRWTS to ensure water sufficiency until 2050. We need sufficient water for Penang to perform even better economically in the future… and we need enough water to support better lifestyles for our children and grandchildren[11].

The state government has been lobbying the Ministry of Energy, Green Technology and Water to implement the scheme since 2010. Delays have been caused by the Perak state government’s “insistence” on selling Penang treated water[12]. Penang is reluctant to buy treated water from Perak as the latter’s higher tariffs would have a knock-on effect on prices in Penang[13].

With no end to the delay of the SPRWTS in sight, the state is forced to look at other options. PBA has ruled out desalination, which it says is “not an economically feasible nor a realistic alternative[14]”. Instead, PBA is exploring measures such as rainwater harvesting and recycling[15]. These too come at a cost, however.

To learn more about what the future holds for Penang’s water supply, I meet Datuk Ir Jaseni Maidinsa, CEO of PBA Holdings. From PBA’s office on the 32nd floor of Komtar, the view is sliced in two by the cerulean blue of the Selatan Strait – George Town below, Gunung Jerai in the distance. It’s a view you can drink in, but none of that water is drinkable. “That’s our last resort,” he says with a laugh, gesturing at the sea.


Datuk Jaseni
Datuk Ir Jaseni Maidinsa


“We have achieved efficiency. Our challenge now is to go beyond efficiency, to achieve sustainability,” says Jaseni, who recently won an award from the Asean Federation of Engineering Organisations (AFEO) for his 30 years of service to the industry.

“We sell the cheapest water, so Penang people don’t feel the pain when paying water bills. Because rates are low, people use a lot of water. We are trying to educate them to use less… If we lower usage, we can postpone the construction of major infrastructure projects.” Such projects would be incredibly costly for the state.

Jaseni would like to see Penang become “a water-saving society”, and points to Singapore as a model. The island nation has a daily per capita usage of 157 litres – almost half of Penang’s – and is aiming at reducing this to 140 litres. “If Singaporeans can live in a modern society with modern facilities at that level, then so can Penangites,” says Jaseni.

Of course, Singapore has substantially higher tariffs than Penang. Its rates better reflect the real price of water, according to Jaseni, and allow the country to fund costly treatment processes such as desalination and recycling. “That’s where we have to go in the long run, but you have to do it slowly.”

PBA is also advocating changes to building codes and has been lobbying for the mandatory use of water-saving devices (WSDs) in new buildings. According to Jaseni, the use of these devices could see savings of 50%-70%. “We are saying you have to tweak the laws to make it mandatory to install WSDs for new developments. This should be done quickly.”


By rigorously training labourers and technicians, PBA hopes to reduce what it calls “non-revenue water” – water that is lost through leaks, incorrect metres and theft.


PBA has also established the nation’s first water services academy for workers. “If I can teach them to do the work properly, we can boost efficiency,” says Jaseni. Incorrectly laid pipes and faulty metres cost states millions, but Penang has managed to maintain the lowest non-revenue water rates in the country. “Our strategy is sustainability, making sure that what we have is maximised.”

According to Jaseni, the biggest long-term threat to Penang’s water supply is climate change. “Even Kuala Muda will be affected,” he says. The river on the border with Kedah is Penang’s main source of surface water, via its subsidiary, Sungai Dua.

sg dua
Sungai Dua water treatment plant.


The effects of El Niño are being felt in increasingly long dry seasons. While dams were historically built to store 100 days worth of water, dry seasons now extend beyond three months. Jaseni says we should look into building dams with 180-day capacities and upgrade existing dams. While this will require heavy investment, the alternative is bleak: “What is money when you don’t have water?”

With limited water sources, Penang cannot afford to waste a drop. Judicious management of these liquid assets is vital if the state is to remain liveable, let alone prosper. Sustained development hinges on quenching this growing state’s thirst. Personal sacrifices are necessary, but so is political will: cooperation between various state and federal authorities is the only way to secure water supply across the country.


[1] United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA), “The human right to water and sanitation”, International Decade for Action ‘Water for Life’ 2005-2015 (
[2] Suzanne Goldenberg, “Why global shortages pose the threat of terror and war”, The Guardian, February 9, 2014 ( See also: Director of National Intelligence, “Global Water Security: Intelligence Community Assessment”, Office of the Director of National Intelligence (USA), February 2, 2012 (
[3] Perbadanan Bekalan Air (PBA), “Penang Water Tariffs”, PBA Website (
[4] Perbadanan Bekalan Air (PBA), “Water supply: the green, sustainable, people-friendly way for Penang”, Press Release, May 29, 2015 (
[5] Perbadanan Bekalan Air (PBA), “Desalination is not an economically feasible or reasonable alternative and Penang’s focus is on water conservation & the Sungai Perak Raw Water Transfer Scheme (SPRWTS)”, Press Release, June 2, 2015 (
[6] Perbadanan Bekalan Air (PBA), “Desalination is not an economically feasible or reasonable alternative”.
[7] Y.A.B. Lim Guan Eng, cited in Perbadanan Bekalan Air (PBA), “Penang Water Tariffs” (
[8] Perbadanan Bekalan Air (PBA), “Penang Water Tariffs (from 1st April 2015)”, PBA Website (
[9] Opalyn Mok, “Breaking vow better than rationing water, Penang CM says”, The Malay Mail Online, April 3, 2014 (
[10] Perbadanan Bekalan Air (PBA), “Penang tariff review to reduce per capita consumption to 260 l/c/d”, Press Release, March 31, 2015 ( See also: Perbadanan Bekalan Air (PBA), “Water supply”.
[11] Perbadanan Bekalan Air (PBA), “Water supply”.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Aaron Ngui, “Penang will not buy treated water from Perak, says Lim”, The Sun, May 28, 2015 (
[14] Perbadanan Bekalan Air (PBA), “Desalination is not an economically feasible or reasonable alternative”.
[15] Ibid.

KL-born and Melbourne-educated, Soon-Tzu Speechley is a freelance writer, editor and historian. His work has appeared in a number of magazines in Australia and Malaysia. He tweets @speechleyish.
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