El Niño sparks concerns of dry taps in Malaysia. And as global temperatures increase, so will droughts and heatwaves, experts say. In response, government agencies are coordinating water assets and integrating water management for better water security.
EL NIÑO is back, casting its fiery spell upon Malaysia once more.
Last observed in 2019, this natural phenomenon is often synonymous with hot and dry weather in Malaysia. During particularly strong El Niño events in 1997 and 2015, millions of Malaysians endured water rationing – some for months – as dams dried up.
Now, experts are sounding the alarm as they predict this El Niño weather might last until March 2024 and intensify. To shield ourselves from the impacts of El Niño, it is now more vital than ever to ensure our water resources are well prepared. But can we?
(Photo: Air Hitam Dam is one of three dams on Penang Island. Authorities had to do cloud-seeding in June 2023 to replenish the dropping water levels at the dam. | Image from Google Earth Pro, June 22, 2022)
The El Niño phenomenon is the warm phase of the major climate system called the El Niño Southern Oscillation. El Niño repeats every 2–7 years and could last up to 12 months. Its intensity varies, but its influence is undeniable. As El Niño sweeps moisture and clouds from the western Pacific to the east, it scorches Southeast Asia, making it hotter and drier.
In Malaysia, the issue of water shortage worsens when El Niño effects coincide with dry seasons at the start of the year, or in June and July. And in the background of rising global temperatures, the nation is thrust into an elevated risk of a severe water supply crisis.
This El Niño event “is predicted to strengthen with a 90% probability that it will intensify and persist until the end of 2023 or early 2024,” says Mohd Zaki bin Mat Amin, director general of the National Water Research Institute of Malaysia (NAHRIM).
This grim forecast, Zaki says, has ignited concerns over the potential impacts on global weather patterns, including severe drought and dwindling water resources.
Locally, it has raised alarming possibilities of widespread water shortages from depleted water reserves and poor management of our water resources.
From source to tap
All our water supply comes from two sources: surface water and groundwater. Surface water is taken from lakes, rivers, and dam reservoirs, while groundwater lies beneath the Earth’s surfaces.
In 2022, Peninsular Malaysia extracted its raw water mostly from rivers (81%). Dams contributed 17%, and groundwater 2% – almost entirely in Kelantan – according to the National Water Services Commission (SPAN).
Water resource infrastructures at risk
Experts say the current water resource infrastructure has looming threats – climate change and poor water resource planning.
Climate change is adding more energy into the atmosphere and seas. That is largely expected to increase our chances of pounding rain and a surge in nature’s temperamental outbursts.
“[Our] infrastructures may not be designed to manage extreme rainfall or dry spell conditions, leading to flooding or raw water supply issues.
“Adapting infrastructure to the changing climate is essential to ensure its resilience,” says Zaki.
Moreover, the maintenance of our ageing infrastructure demands immediate attention. One of the concerns is the significant loss of non-revenue water due to burst pipes, leaks, and unauthorised usage.
But these statistics understate the contribution that dams make to our water supply. That is because when a dam releases water into rivers, the water that is later taken from the river is recorded as river extraction, rather than being directly credited to the dams.
Dams are mighty guardians, ensuring a stable water supply to cater to our needs. Built across rivers, they harness the rains and rivers, amassing vast amounts of water.
The stored water is then released periodically, serving two essential purposes.
Firstly, dams regulate river water levels. This prevents floods and nurtures the natural environment along the banks.
Secondly, during dry seasons, the controlled release of water from dams guarantees a continuous flow into water treatment plants, where the precious resource is processed into clean, safe water for humans.
Malaysia has 104 dams serving multiple functions – hydroelectric generation, irrigation and drainage, agriculture, recreational, and water supply. Among them, 62 are for water supply.
We are in fact more dependent on dams than we realise.
No dam, no water
Let’s use Penang as an example. The state is officially listed as receiving a mere 10% of its water from dams. In reality, Penang gets 85% of its water from Sungai Muda, Kedah, which is regulated by the Beris Dam and Muda Dam.
And given the nature of water, it is hard to determine the exact extent of our reliance on dams.
“The statistics don’t reflect that because the extraction is from the river, not directly from the dam. If we don’t have [Muda Dam], of course the river would be dry,” says Ahmad Zaki Md Nor, Deputy Undersecretary of Water and Sewerage Services Division at the Ministry of Natural Resources, Environment, and Climate Change (NRECC).
But it is not only that dams are important: any water storage system is as important.
Where’s the backup?
Zaki also worries about the lack of backup water network systems. A single point of failure, such as a critical pipeline or treatment plant, can lead to widespread water supply interruptions. This is especially worrying for states such as Kedah and Kelantan, where water reserve margins are near zero.
Mitigating risks and securing uninterrupted water supply demands a forward-thinking approach. This involves building alternative supply routes and backup systems.
“Addressing these vulnerabilities requires investments in infrastructure upgrades, proactive maintenance practices, climate-proofing design, and improved water resource planning,” he says.
He emphasises that all these measures are vital not only to fulfil the current and future water needs, but also to support long-term development that can withstand the impacts of climate uncertainties.
Weathering the El Niño impact
In anticipation of El Niño and future water woes, the National Water Service Commission (SPAN) set up a “war room” to keep a vigilant eye on the situation of dams and rivers that supply raw water to 344 water treatment plants in Peninsular Malaysia and Labuan (Sabah and Sarawak manage their own water).
The war room sits in SPAN’s headquarters in Cyberjaya. A small space that fits only five desks, the walls are adorned with huge monitors, whiteboards, maps, and graphs bearing crucial information on our dams.
SPAN officers monitor the situation, watchful for signs of change and potential threats. A dam’s colour on the screen would go from green to yellow and – at worst – red as its water balance drops.
In the event of emergencies, SPAN has outlined immediate measures, including deploying tankers to affected areas, employing cloud seeding techniques, and implementing water usage restrictions under Section 56 of the Water Services Industry Act 655.
Low dam levels and water reserves
SPAN’s war room reveals a concerning trend. Of the 43 dams being monitored, water balance in 7 had slipped into the Warning Level (less than 60% storage), and another – Muda Dam in Kedah – has been stuck in the Critical Level (less than 30% storage) since June 26.
In terms of preparation, the government has started projects to increase water reserve margins using riverside water catchment projects known as Takungan Air Pinggiran Sungai (TAPS). However, TAPS is only expected to be completed in 2030.
This was done in line with SPAN’s targets to have all states under its purview reach at least 15% in water reserve margins. As of 2022, 5 states have yet to hit this target. Worryingly, Perlis, Kedah, and Kelantan – all which have water reserve margins below 10% – are among the states most likely to suffer from harsher dry and hot days in the future.
Integrate, integrate, integrate
As of now, SPAN has given the assurance that all states are well-supplied with water.
Zaki believes that a sustainable water management approach is essential. He says NAHRIM is currently working on an integrated water resource management (IWRM) system – a key element of the Water Sector Transformation 2040 plan.
Zaki explains that this comprehensive approach needs to take into account various sectors, ranging from the domestic, agricultural, and industrial, and the delicate balance of maintaining the environment.
Ili Nadiah Dzulkafar, chairperson of NGO Klima Action Malaysia agrees. Current actions are “reactive and non-anticipatory”.
Individuals also need to be empowered. And evidence-based fiscal support could be the cornerstone to building Malaysians’ water literacy levels.
“This financial aid will help bridge data gaps, enhance capacity building, foster community resilience, and empower societies [to better manage their water],” she says.
“It is not sufficient only to plan and have targets. [It’s a] good start, but the hardest part is implementation and enforcement.”
[Edited by YH Law]
We thank the Malaysian Meteorological Department for providing us with weather data for this story.
Correction: Aug 10– (1) We amended the sentence “Alternative pumping operations (OPAK) and water storage systems such as TAPS (including Hybrid Off-River Augmentation System (HORAS)) are also utilised to address water scarcity challenges promptly” to make clear that OPAK is not a water storage system, and that HORAS is part of TAPS; (2) we corrected a typing error of “354 water treatment plants” to “344 water treatment plants”.