Ushar Daniele

Published: February 3, 2023

  • Clean water and sanitation recognised as basic human rights by UN almost 13 years ago, but water problems abound in many countries, including Malaysia
  • This year’s UN water conference hopes to tackle issue; Malaysia expert says climate change, poor management, excessive demand, subsidised bills are not helping

Zainun Abdullah, 73, has lived in the state of Kelantan on Malaysia’s east coast for over 30 years.

Well used to her routines and the region, the pensioner has also had to become somewhat resigned to turning on her tap and filling a glass with water that resembles milky tea.

In 2021, she said, dirty H20 was almost a daily occurrence, and over the decades she has regularly installed filters to ensure she has something she can drink and cook with that will not damage her health.

“It is so frustrating when the local government doesn’t care and we are told to be grateful to even have water,” she added.

Zainun is far from being the only Malaysian to be dealing with such water problems. Clean water and sanitation were explicitly recognised as basic human rights by the United Nations back in July 2010, but almost 13 years on around two million citizens in the Asian nation do not have access to clean H2O, while more than five million do not have access to safe sanitation services.

According to the UN, in 2020, 74 per cent of the global population had access to safely managed drinking water services, an increase by 4 per cent on 2015, but still, two billion people live without such services.

Complaints about a lack of clean water, or whether there is water actually coming out of the tap, are still frequently heard in Malaysia. Rural and urban areas both face water problems caused by contamination and a lack of services.

A passenger plane in Kuala Lumpur is welcomed by a water cannon salute after Covid-19 restrictions were lifted. Many Malaysians have trouble accessing clean water, with experts saying water resource management is poor. Photo: Xinhua

The UN 2023 Water Conference in New York in March aims to do something about the issue. The event, the first of its kind since the 1970s, aims to bring nations, including Malaysia, together to create a global momentum to tackle the many challenges.

According to Unicef, nearly 910 million people in the East Asia and Pacific region lack access to safe sanitation services and around 116 million lack basic drinking water.

Furthermore, in 13 regional countries where data is available, the organisation says, more than 19 million people lack handwashing facilities with soap to prevent the spread of the likes of Covid-19, pneumonia and diarrhoea, putting many lives at risk.

Back in Kelantan, around 20km from Zainun’s home, lives a civil servant who wanted only to be called Muhammad over fears of a backlash for speaking out. He said that after moving to Bachok in 2021, from elsewhere in the state, he spends more than RM400 (US$93) a month on bottled water.

Angry and stressed, the 40-year-old, who lives alone, said his emotional well-being is affected by water problems.

A Malaysian man on World Water Day 2022; the day raises awareness of the 2.2 billion people who do not have access to safe water. Photo: EPA-EFE

“I cannot afford to move because most areas in Kelantan face the same issue – there is no clean water supply,” he said.

His supply comes from groundwater accessed by drilling a borehole into underground sources. Skin rashes were not new to him and having to buy so much bottled water was taking its toll.

“Things are getting expensive … I cannot even get a washing machine because bore water will damage metal inside the machine,” he said before urging the authorities to provide clean water to all Kelantan’s citizens.

For 32 years the Islamic party PAS has led the state with “Membangun Bersama Islam” (Building Islam Together) its motto. But residents like Zainun and Muhammad are among many wanting a better quality of life.

The water in Ranau in the state of Sabah, in Malaysian Borneo, is often murky. Photo: Martha Thomas

Meanwhile, in Ranau in the state of Sabah in Malaysian Borneo, Martha Thomas, 41, said that when it rains, her tap water goes murky. Often, if it rains for a couple of hours, the water supply stops.

Water department officials claim this is “necessary”, she said, “because they fear pipes will be clogged and while I understand that the department is upgrading the water supply, we can only be patient”.

The UN-Water Global Analysis and Assessment of Sanitation and Drinking-Water (GLAAS) 2022 released in December revealed that 45 per cent of countries are on track to achieve national drinking-water coverage targets, but only 23 per cent of nations are on route to achieving national sanitation targets.

Malaysian water experts point out that their country is blessed with an abundance of rain, around 3 metres each year, but say water resource management is poor.

Need to ‘get our act together’

Professor Ngai Weng Chan, professor of physical geography and environmental management at Penang’s Universiti Sains Malaysia, said if the nation could get its act together with effective management, political will and socio-economic strategies, the UN’s sixth Sustainable Development Goal (SDG6) – ensuring access to water and sanitation for all – is achievable.


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According to Chan, most water issues in Malaysia are related to poor management including pollution, unsustainable water subsidies, waste and excessive demand from businesses and domestic consumers.

According to data from the National Water Services Commission (SPAN), Malaysians consume an average of 201 litres of water per person per day, much more than the World Health Organization’s recommendation of 165 litres.

“How can consumers be convinced to save water if their monthly water bill is only the price of a meal? Hence, my projection is that the daily per capita water use will continue to go up,” said Chan.

There are minimum monthly charges for water. For example, RM6 (US$1.40) in the state of Selangor and in Kuala Lumpur, RM4.50 in Kelantan and RM3 in Sabah.

A Malaysian man carries a water container after refilling it from a natural spring; millions of households were affected by the closure of water treatment plants, due to pollution, in 2020. Photo: EPA-EFE

The country is heavily reliant on drawing water from various rivers but these are now under severe stress; Sungai Muda in northeastern Kedah, along the border with Thailand, has about 25 per cent of its water left.

Chan said abstracting river water is still the most economical method of getting water and while Malaysia has good groundwater (underground) potential, that should be kept as a future water resource alternative, rather than using it now.

“It’s like a family saving some of its monthly income for the rainy day … if we do not save it for the future and start using it now, we may deplete even this source of water very soon,” he said.

He said while rivers should be maximised, enough water needed to be left in them for eco systems before the powers that be resorted to groundwater use. And that “is certainly not so simple” as just digging a well and pumping out water, Chan added.

He said deforestation has played a major impact on water catchment areas and his recommendation to control tree removal would help Malaysia achieve SDG6.

Many Kelantan residents rely on borehole water but fear contamination and skin diseases. Photo: Handout

The government needs to formally announce that water catchment regions, areas through which water drains into a body of water, including underground supplies, are indeed essential water catchments and “not merely protected forests”.

Chan said the government must protect water catchments like the 120,000-hectare (296,000-acre) Ulu Muda forest in the state of Kedah and other catchments, large and small, from deforestation, especially with increases in logging, mining, agriculture dams and infrastructure projects like roads.

The analyst also said climate change is exacerbating water problems so a small problem can be significantly magnified. Therefore, all water resource planning must take into account the warming planet.

“For example, if rainfall is projected to be reduced by 20 per cent due to climate change, the planners must factor this decrease into all development plans and if ignored, there would be an untold future water crisis.”

Residents collect water from a truck in Balakong, outside Kuala Lumpur, after weeks of drought in 2014. Photo: AFP

Chan said restructuring tariffs was also important to ensure they are fair and reflect the actual price of water, including the cost of treatment, catchment protection and distribution. He emphasised that the government’s role in abolishing supply subsidies was important for the future.

“If we can abolish petrol and other subsidies, why not do it with water as well? Why are politicians so afraid of raising water tariffs? No one is going to die of thirst even if they cannot afford to pay their water bill,” Chan said, recommending water tariffs be revised so they are on a par with electricity bills.

“They can easily get water from public sources for free. I am not saying they should, but the fact is they can.”