As a people’s representative, an issue very close to my heart is the accessibility of treated water to domestic consumers especially in the outbacks. World Water Day, designated by the United Nations, is celebrated every 22nd March to promote water related issues – universal access to clean water, and managing freshwater resources sustainably.
According to a 2017 joint report by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and UNICEF, three in 10 people globally, or 2.1 billion, lack access to safe water that is readily available at home. Malaysia has come a long way; but accessibility to treated water is not yet at 100 per cent.
The National Water Services Commission (Suruhanjaya Perkhidmatan Air Negara or SPAN) indicated that today, the national water supply coverage is at 95.7 per cent, the least being Kelantan (64.7), followed by Sabah (89.4) and Sarawak (94.5).
Therefore it is estimated that about 1.4 million people in the country, out of a population of 32.05 million, still do not obtain treated water supply. Around 400,000 residents in Sabah based on a population of 3.8 million are without treated water supply.
As a Member of Parliament overlooking more than 200 villages, I observed that there are many challenges in delivering treated water in the outbacks. Some common problems are water treatment plants located too far away from consumers, low water catchment areas thus requiring additional booster pumps and undesired climatic conditions such as droughts and floods.
However I have also come across instances where the people are not sufficiently aware of the importance of consuming and using treated water. Some have cited the additional cost of applying for treated water as a hindrance to using it. This is where science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) knowledge can play a role.
STEM can help us understand the process of raw water treatment, its importance and help us appreciate treated water even more. To begin with, there are several sources of raw water such as ground water from wells, surface water from lakes and rivers, ocean water and spring water.
It is interesting to note that raw water originating from different sources would require different water treatment plants or processes. Although the raw water treatment process is lengthy, there are five main steps.
After allowing sand and large debris to settle, the raw water would undergo chemical coagulation to clump very small particles together large enough to be removed later. Next is flocculation, where the coagulated particles further form floc (clumps). The process that follows would let gravity do its job. The flocculated water now contains suspended solids that are denser than water, allowing them to sink to the bottom, a processed known as sedimentation.
The fourth main process is filtration. The water undergoes filtration by passing through gravity filter beds to remove the remaining impurities. Lastly the water is disinfected. Chlorine and other chemical disinfectants are added to the water to ensure that it is safe from microorganisms, especially those that could cause water borne diseases such as cholera, dysentery, typhoid fever and salmonellosis. Fluoride is also added to drinking water at the plant to help strengthen our teeth.
A number of government bodies are involved in the pursuit of safe drinking water. SPAN regulates water supply and sewerage services; the Department of Environment regulates wastewater effluent quality through the Environmental Quality Act 1974 whereas the Ministry of Health regulates food safety, including drinking water through Food Act 1983 and Food Regulations 1985.
MOSTI through the Department of Chemistry Malaysia would analyse water samples, both raw and treated, to ensure that it complies with the National Standard for Drinking Water Quality, which is also in accordance with the WHO Guidelines for Drinking Water Quality. They have to test for almost 120 parameters (substances) in the water samples! Not to mention that the department tests about 150,000 samples annually in its chemistry or microbiology laboratories around the country.
And thankfully, as testified by Puan Zaiton Ariffin who is currently supervising the Environmental Health Division of Environmental Health Division of the department, in most cases the water supply in Malaysia has been of excellent quality, as demonstrated by their analytical reports. We are also blessed that treated water is very affordable in this country.
We might not lack sources for raw water at the moment except during dry spells, but we need to pay more attention to wastewater treatment for two main reasons. As suggested by the Mega Science 1.0 study on Water through the Academy of Sciences Malaysia, the most obvious reason is to conserve and protect our environment, by ensuring that wastewater is treated properly before channelling them back to nature.
The full report is available online for the public’s reference.
Secondly, due to a number of water related challenges such as increasing demand for its supply toward 2050, climate change and pollution, we need to be technologically geared up to overcome them. The emergence of new pollutants such as the endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) found in pesticides, metals, additives or contaminants in food, pharmaceuticals and personal care products for example, is a growing concern.
According to WHO, EDCs could affect reproductive function in both males and females; increase incidence of breast cancer, cause abnormal growth patterns, neurodevelopmental delays in children and changes in our immune function. Therefore advanced technology is required to filter out contaminants from wastewater such as EDCs.
In the near future might we recycle wastewater for our own consumption? Would this water be safe enough? This is where evidence-based policymaking plays a role. The Chemistry Department, National Hydraulic Research Institute of Malaysia (NAHRIM) and Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) would join forces to investigate these pharmaceuticals found in the Langat River, Selangor.
I have always said that we need to innovate to solve problems. Take Singapore for instance. They are known as a water technology hub, precisely due to the water problems they are facing.
For a more sustainable solution, our neighbour in the south has invested to come up with advanced technologies to purify reclaimed water. Branded as NEWater, they aim to meet 55 per cent of the city-state’s water needs with this treated wastewater in 40 years’ time, in contrast with the current 40 per cent.
In Chinese there is a saying, “yin shui si yuan”, which literally translates to “when you drink water, think about its source”. It means remembering your source of blessings, urging us to be grateful. As a people’s representative and Minister, I hope more would now be aware of the importance of using and consuming treated water and at the same time, do appreciate how water reaches our taps the next time we quench our thirst!
Special thanks goes to the following experts and agencies for their contribution toward this write-up:
Puan Zaiton bt Ariffin, Senior Director of the Research and Quality Assurance Division covering for the Environmental Health Division, Jabatan Kimia Malaysia
Tan Sri Dato’ Ir Syed Muhammad Shahabudin FASc, Chairman of ASM Water Demand Management Task Force
Ir. Dr. Salmah Zakaria FASc, Chairperson of ASM Water Committee
Academician Datuk Fateh Chand FASc, Chairman of ASM Integrated Aquifer System Management
Professor Dr Yang Farina Abdul Aziz FASc, ASM Water Committee Member
Academy of Sciences Malaysia