The Malaysian leaky pipe story


THE recent World Economic Forum in Davos centred on climate change. It is clear that a warming planet is a concern among the movers and shakers of world economies.

There are fires in Australia and heatwaves around the world. In the US alone, climate-related costs have reached US$525 billion (RM2.15 trillion) in the last five years. The extreme weather is bound to lead to droughts and water security issues that would require governments to take major steps to tackle the risks posed.

In Malaysia, the rising national demand for water and the changing climate will stress the country’s water resources. However, the water industry in Malaysia is mired with inefficient water management issues.

Inefficiency of water management has allowed water loss through pipe leakages to reach as high as 50% in Pahang, while the national average at present is at 35% nearly thrice that of developed countries as estimated by the World Bank and nowhere near the government’s target to reduce non-revenue water (NRW) to 25% by 2020.

According to the National Water Services Commission (SPAN), three quarters of NRW are due to physical losses through leaking pipes. There are about 41,560km of asbestos cement (AC) pipes as of 2018 which is estimated to be about 30% of total pipes’ length.

The AC pipes are beyond useful life because they were installed over 60 years ago during the colonial times, pose health risks and have been banned in the US since 1995 and in Japan in the 1970s.

It will cost about RM76.91 billion in working capital to upgrade pipelines and reservoirs to ensure uninterrupted water supply in the country for the next 30 years and RM13 billion to reduce loss due to ageing equipment.

The government through the National NRW Reduction Programme 2018/2020 has allotted RM1.39 billion until 2020 where its main scope is to change and replace the pipes on a large scale. However, it is not sufficient for a nationwide pipe replacement programme.

There is a solution to this problem. Allowing people to contribute to the replacement of the pipes will enable them to feel empowered over the water security of the country. Giving “waqf” or endowment for the provision of water is embedded in Islamic history.

People will be willing to contribute if they had a specific cause to contribute to and we witnessed it first-hand with the Tabung Harapan which collected RM200 million in seven months.

All industries that are heavily reliant on the water like the energy utility, agriculture industry and manufacturing industries can also contribute as part of their CSR contribution.

It could be a good example of government-corporation-community collaboration to solve a pressing issue.

All funds should be channelled into the Water Industry Fund which already exists and was established to ensure the sustainability of water supply, to protect and preserve watercourses.

Contributors to this fund are confined to water supply licensees and authorised persons at the moment. Opening the fund for contributions from consumers, corporations and government grants will enable it to grow faster. It should become a revolving fund managed by financial intermediaries to grow the fund value.

If the fund is managed well, it can have sizeable net returns that will be able to finance maintenance of water infrastructure without the need to raise the water tariffs and at the same time, look for alternative water resources, for example, groundwater exploration.

Thus, the fund can have the potential to fund projects in perpetuity and this would satisfy the original objective of the fund which is to ensure water sustainability and security for all without only relying on the budget allocation of the government of the day.

Previously, all efforts to replace the pipes were done piece-meal under the jurisdiction of different states. It has not been effective so far as not all the state governments have dedicated teams and resources to perform these tasks.

A concerted effort to just replace the AC pipes will result in the completion of the task nationwide, faster and at lower costs. This was successfully practised in Japan and all AC pipes were replaced within 20 years.

Climate change is not something we can take lightly and with the variability in rain, we have to take serious measures to ensure water security for the nation, and the responsibility falls on everyone.

This would include managing our water resources sustainably and not just resort to channelling water from other states to the states that demand more.

We should be thinking about limiting the usage of water per capita. However, the low hanging fruit that requires our immediate attention is plugging the leaks of our distribution pipes starting with the replacement of the AC pipes.

Benjamin Franklin once said, when the well is dry, we will know the worth of water. Let us not wait for that to happen.

Dr Kulsanofer Syed Thajudeen
Petaling Jaya

The views expressed are of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the stand of the newspaper’s owners and editorial board.