Making Sure Our Taps Will Never Run Dry

loading Teluk Bahang Dam.

Datuk Ir. Jaseni Maidinsa.

World Water Day – March 22 – is about addressing the reasons why so many people are left without clean water.

Penang faces a predicament of its own: it is a water-stressed state with limited raw water resources; the Muda River is its most precious resource, supplying 80% of the state’s water, pumped from the Lahar Tiang Intake through the Sungai Dua Canal; and its water catchments, stretching 62.9km wide, make up the remaining 20%.1

But despite the odds stacked against it, Penang is surprisingly the only Malaysian state not to have experienced water rationing. “In 1973, Penang surrendered 27.7 acres to Kedah in exchange for a guarantee of water supply in perpetuity from the catchments in Ulu Muda River.

This was to facilitate the Penang Water Supply Project funded by a loan from the Asian Development Bank,” says Datuk Ir. Jaseni Maidinsa, CEO of the Penang Water Supply Corporation (PBAPP) and PBA Holdings, during a public lecture on Water Supply Sustainability for Penang at Wawasan Open University last October.2

The state’s water catchments, gazetted as protected areas since 2004, constitute the beginning of the water supply value chain. “Malaysia experiences a lot of rainfall except during the January-April dry season, making surface water Penang’s cheapest water source. However, not enough is being done to properly manage the supply. In the past, the trees’ root systems aided in delaying rainfall from flowing to the sea by allowing water to percolate below ground. But incessant logging and development have necessitated the construction of dams and ponds for water collection,” says Jaseni.

Stop the Tap!

It doesn’t help matters that Penang also has the highest per capita water consumption in the country: “Water consumption has risen in tandem with the state’s population growth and because Penangites enjoy affordable water rates, its wastage is equally high,” says Jaseni.

By 2050, projections indicate that water demand will increase to 1,884 million litres per day, driven in part by the state’s flourishing manufacturing and electrical and electronics sectors. “A factory alone uses as much water as a small town, and due to the reliability of our water system 24/7 and without any prior incidences of water rationing, the state has been successful in attracting a multitude of MNCs – Singaporean companies especially set up base in Penang because our water is 14 times cheaper than in their home country – and that’s why you see trade increase by 135%,” explains Jaseni.

Mengkuang Dam.

Deforestation at the Ulu Muda area.

However, to sustain continuous water supply to its 1.76 million population, PBAPP has outlined several key initiatives, including raising the value of water through tariffs and a water conservation surcharge (WCS).3

The first of its kind in Malaysia, the WCS was introduced in 2009 to motivate domestic consumers to save water and use it wisely at home. The surcharge was initially valued at RM0.24 per 1,000 litres, applicable only for domestic consumption above 35m3 per month.

It was later discovered that the premium of RM0.24 was not significant enough to motivate domestic water conservation, thereby prompting its increase to RM0.48 in 2013. The surcharge is predominantly aimed at the 28% that are high-volume domestic consumers. Payment can be avoided by simply reducing water consumption.4

“We have also been pushing for the installation of water-saving devices (WSDs), which enable water consumption to be reduced by 14 to 87%. This was finally approved in November 2017, making Penang the first state in Malaysia as well to require WSDs to be installed in all new development projects,” says Jaseni.5 Existing buildings will also be retrofitted with WSDs.

Likewise, PBAPP will work with the state government to launch a campaign to encourage water consumers to purchase and use WSDs, including tap equipment, shower systems, toilet/urinal equipment, washing machines and dishwashers in their homes and offices, and to replace outdated plumbing fittings with WSDs.

Alternative Sources

“The Muda River has a fixed volume of water which can be supplied to the state. This cannot be increased, but it can decrease as a result of excessive logging in Ulu Muda and climate change.  In the likely event of a water crisis, PBAPP has identified the Perak River as another raw water resource,” says Jaseni.

Penang’s proposal for tapping this additional resource involves the pumping of raw water from this river through a new water tunnel built across the highlands. The water will then be discharged into the Ijok River, a tributary of Sungai Kerian, at the southern border of Penang, for drawing and treatment in PBAPP-managed plants.6

“Mengkuang Dam will act as a strategic dam; in case of an emergency, water will be released from the dam for business to go on as usual,” says Jaseni. The dam is at present still undergoing expansion and repair works as part of the RM1.2bil Mengkuang Dam Expansion Project funded by the federal government and implemented by the Water Supply Department of the then- Ministry of Energy, Green Technology and Water.7

PBAPP is also expanding the scope of its non-revenue water (NRW) management initiatives into new focus areas, includingwater catchments; raw water supply systems such as dams, canals, mains, pumping stations and intakes; and internal reticulation systems related to the regulation of pipes and fittings, pumps, rooftop and suction tanks. The goal is to sustain the lowest NRW percentage in Malaysia, not only in existing NRW focus areas, but throughout the water supply value chain.8

“Since 2008, PBAPP has spent slightly more than half a billion ringgit on numerous projects to sustain good water quality for Penangites. At the end of the day, we want the same benefits that we are enjoying for our children and grandchildren,” Jaseni says.

3At the time of writing, the rate of increase in water tariff was yet to be announced.

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