Malaysia likely to face water crisis by 2030 amid growing demand: officials

Malaysia lost an estimated US$1.7 billion in wasted water between 2018 and 2022. The perceived low cost of water combined with climate pressures is fuelling water scarcity.

water scarcity malaysia
Malaysia's water tariff is the fourth lowest in Southeast Asia, at RM1.22 (US$0.25) per cubic metre. Due to the low cost of water, businesses and consumers are overconsuming it. Image: Asian Development Bank, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Malaysia is expected to face severe water shortages in the coming years unless water conservation is taken more seriously by consumers and businesses, experts say.

Speakers at the UN Global Compact Network Malaysia & Brunei’s Future Leaders of Water Sustainability 2024 conference said that proactive measures from the government and the public were needed to avert a water crisis in the country of 34 million people.

Charles Santiago, chairman of the National Water Services Commission (SPAN), Malaysia’s water agency, said water management in Malaysia is primarily affected by two factors – non-revenue water (NRW) and overconsumption – both of which must be tackled urgently.

Speaking on a panel discussion on water security, Santiago said NRW had resulted in billions of ringgits in economic losses for the country in recent years.

NRW is the difference between the volume of water put into a water distribution system and the volume that is billed to customers.

“We lost something like eight billion ringgit (US$1.7 billion) as a result of leaking pipes between 2018 and 2022. If we don’t fix it, then in the next five years that 8 billion ringgit will balloon to 16 or even 17 billion ringgit,” he said, urging the authorities to ensure the water systems are better maintained to reduce losses.

“We are guzzlers. We consume something like 245 litres per day. And in Penang, people consume 300 litres per day. But the recommendation by the World Health Organisation is only 160 litres per day.”

“If we do not decrease our water consumption, we are going to face a crisis.”

Santiago said that the perception that “water is really affordable” is the main reason why businesses and consumers are “wasting it”.

Malaysia’s water tariff is the fourth lowest in Southeast Asia, at RM1.22 (US$0.25) per cubic metre. This compares to RM1.37 (US0.29) per cubic metre in Vietnam, RM1.68 (US$0.35) in Thailand, RM2.92 (US$0.62) in the Philippines and RM5.88 (US$1.27) in Singapore.

As a result of the perceived low cost of water as well as other factors such as climate change, Malaysia is facing a reduction in water carrying capacity.

Subang Jaya assemblywoman Michelle Ng Mei Sze shared a similar concern. She said that Malaysia is expected to face a drought in 2025, which could affect the water supply across the country.

Ng pointed out that the rising demand for water in Selangor as the population grows could mean acute water shortages in the coming years.

Selangor water demand 2023

Water demand for the state of Selangor is expected to reach 9,000 million litres per day by 2065 due to rising population. Image: Michelle Ng

“By 2065, we are expected to consume about 9,000 million litres of water per day. It may seem that we have a supply issue, and as a government, our immediate response would usually be to build more water treatment plants. But actually, we also have a demand issue,” she said.

Ng added that the average water consumption per person per day in Malaysia is currently 209 litres and state authorities are trying to reduce consumption levels to 160 litres per person per day by 2030.

Meanwhile, Santiago emphasised the need to conserve water by decreasing consumption and blanket water subsidies, which vary by state. In Pahang, Terengganu and Kedah states, water tariffs have not changed for decades, he noted.

Even with an average increase to the price of water of 22 cents across the country from February, water operators are still providing subsidies, he said.

The average cost of production per litre in Malaysia is currently about RM1.72 (US$0.36) but consumers are currently paying RM1.22 (US$0.26) per litre.

“While we want the government to keep it [water] affordable, we as people need to ensure that we conserve water.”

“It’s important in terms of conservation, to look at our water footprint. We’re always looking at carbon footprint. But let’s also look at our water footprint too,” he said.


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