Water resources in Malaysia – Challenges and Opportunities

Water is a vital element in all social and economic advancements. Though Malaysia is graced with bountiful water resources, the nation is reeling under looming water crisis due to increased demand in the recent years. Water management and development has been a catalyst for the social and economic development of the nation for the past several decades. Water rich dams, canals and pipelines have been diverting water from water bodies to support domestic, agricultural and industrial requirements (Mohammad et al, 2011).

However, due to growth in population, urbanization and improved living standards has resulted in a continuous increase in the demand for water. Researchers have reported a steady increase in water demand from 8.9 billion m3 in 1980 to 15.5 billion m3 in 2000 for agricultural, industrial and domestic purposes. Ever since, the demand has been much more than the supply (Malek et al, 2013). Some of the issues and challenges regarding water resources in Malaysia have been discussed below:

Over-emphasis on water supply management

Water supply in the country is dependent on the water supply management outlook to meet the water demand of the citizens. However, this method is no more sustainable in the coming times, since the demand will eventually outdistance the water supply.

The greater demand of water obviously increases the need to build more dams, water storage structures, treatment establishments and water distribution pipes. The root of this acute water crisis stems from Malaysia’s 41 dams and reservoirs, some of which are quickly drying up, especially in Penang, Kedah, Perak, and Perlis. There is an urgent need to integrate the supply and demand-side management so as to facilitate a more sustainable water management system (Seckler, 1998).

Lack of governance and efficient institutional/policy framework 

The water supply distribution among each Malaysian state differs between the organizations and departments in charge. The country lacks a centralized authority to look after the overall aspects of water management system.

Water policy making is taken care by the Ministry of Energy and Green Technology. Guidelines are laid down by the National Water Services Commission (SPAN), and service facilities controlled by the state water entities. Too many national organizations and ministries possess power and jurisdiction over multifold aspects of water management, resulting into sectoral management of water and conflicting or competing goals and missions. There are too many guidelines, laws and reports to comply that results in disagreements and disputes. Most of these guidelines, laws and policies are outdated, redundant or ambiguous.

Water wastage

As per the 2016 news report, individual citizen in Malaysia wastes nearly 50,000 litres of water per annum. This quantity is much more than the countries like US and Australia in the same year and this is unsustainable in the long term (Weng, 2002).

Irregular weather patterns 

Due to climate change and irregular weather patterns, the water resources are facing a negative impact. Rising temperatures in Malaysia for past several years have caused severe water shortage in Malaysia. To add to the stress, the arrival of El Niño, time and again has brought severe drought that has led to critical water crises, especially in Peninsular Malaysia. Water planning and management systems in Malaysia does not adequately take into account any alterations in weather patterns (Goh et al, 2016).

Higher price for Non-revenue Water (NRW) 

The price of Non-revenue water in Malaysia is very high with the national average being forty percent. This is equivalent to wastage of forty litres out of hundred litres of treated drinking water. If the country can make efforts to minimize the NRW losses, the building of new dams could be delayed (Lai et al, 2017).

Privatization of the water sector 

With privatization, decisions regarding to water provisioning, management and access to water will be based on profit considerations and not social equity, public health, and environmental sustainability. However, many of water privatization schemes have not been very enterprising and successful. Water privatization lacks transparency and accountability (Azzis et al, 2015).

Destruction and degradation of water catchments 

Logging activities, landfills, land encroachment and destruction of forests have lead to degradation of water catchments. Also, many water catchments in Malaysia are yet to be gazetted and protected. Due to this, the water catchments are exposed to negative environmental impacts, which ultimately make water resources unusable and unsustainable (Ngah & Othman).

Lack of robust water Legislation 

Laws, legal policies and rules related to water management are outdated and need reviewing and upgradation keeping into consideration today’s water scenario in the country. Most of the laws are not comprehensive enough to be implemented uniformly throughout the country (Saimy & Yusof, 2013). Some of the existing acts like the Water Services Industry Act and National Water Services Commission Act have been helpful in strengthening water management, but the scope of these acts is limited to water treatment and distribution of water supply.

Water pollution 

Water pollution is a grave problem in Malaysia. Water quality of rivers and lakes has totally deteriorated due to increase in pollution. Growing pollution declines total water availability, as the price of treating polluted waters is very high and, in some cases, polluted waters are not recommended for consumption (Afroz et al, 2014).

Low water rates 

Water rates in Malaysia are amongst the lowest as compared to other countries (Chan, 2009). Due to this, no robust measures are taken to conserve water, but instead there is lot of water wastage and over consumption, both of which undermine availability of water.

Scope for opportunities (Ti & Facon, 2002)

The set of initiatives that need to take place in order to address the above challenges include:

  • Management of water resources in an efficient and effective manner.
  • Develop a national water policy framework and comprehensive water legislation and guidelines
  • Ensure that all the stakeholders (Government, private sector and the communities) are included in decision making related to water management.
  • Endorsement and acceptance of the national water vision by all stakeholders.
  • Surveillance programmes like remote sensing techniques to detect illegal activities and address water pollution problems need to be initiated. Attempts can be made to restore the polluted rivers by participation of all stakeholders. Awareness campaigns can be made among the riverine population and the principle of ‘polluters pay’ can be strictly applied to all the offenders.
  • Establishment of integrated river basin management. This would include; federal, state and cross-sectoral collaborative mechanisms for river basin management and equitable sharing of water resources in each river basin.
  • Discover innovative technologies with regards to judicious water utilization, water and wastewater treatment, recycling and reuse of water.
  • Strict enforcement of laws and policies and streamlining of the bureaucracy.
  • Uniform and robust policy framework enforced in all the states for equitable allocation to all users, to address domestic, commercial, industrial, agricultural, and ecological requirements.


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Goh, Y. C., Zainol, Z., & Mat Amin, M. Z. (2016). Assessment of future water availability under the changing climate: case study of Klang River Basin, Malaysia. International Journal of River Basin Management14(1), 65-73.

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Ngah, M. S. Y. C., & Othman, Z. (2010). Water catchment management: a Malaysian perspective. Global Journal of Environmental Research4(1), 34-39.

Saimy, I. S., & Yusof, N. A. M. (2013). The need for better water policy and governance in Malaysia. Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences81, 371-375.

Seckler, D. W. (1998). World water demand and supply, 1990 to 2025: Scenarios and issues (Vol. 19). Iwmi.

Ti, L. H., & Facon, T. G. (2002). Malaysia’s water vision: The way forward–The Malaysian water partnership in from vision to action: A synthesis of national water visions in Southeast Asia. The FAO-ESCAP Pilot Project On National Water Visions, Bangkok, 25-42.

Weng, C. N. (2002). A critical review of Malaysia’s accomplishment on water resources management under agenda 21. In Proceedings of International Conference on Environmental Management, Centre for Graduate Studies, National University of Malaysia (UKM), Bangi (pp. 315-331).

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