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The role of water in the pandemic era

It is estimated that over two billion of the global population live in countries with high water stress.

Dominic Foo
4 minute read

Just about a week ago, we marked the first anniversary of the movement control order being enforced in Malaysia. Over the past year, one of the most frequent messages that we have heard is for our hands to be washed regularly to ensure personal hygiene is upheld during this Covid-19 pandemic season.

By and large, we have been blessed with water supply thanks to the location of our country as it means that we benefit from plenty of rainfall. However, within Malaysia, there are areas that are suffering from access to clean water supply. The repeated water cut-offs in the Klang Valley due to the illegal dumping of industrial waste in rivers have also led to disturbed life in the past few years.

It has been estimated that over two billion of the global population live in countries with high water stress. Realising the need for global unified action, the UN Sustainable Development Goal, which was launched in 2015, has included this issue in Goal 6 with the theme of “Clean Water and Sanitation for All”.

Engineers have also taken this global issue in stride making “provide an access to clean water” one of the 14 National Academy of Engineers (NAE) Grand Challenges for Engineering in the 21st Century. This has allowed for a focused approach to develop solutions that will enable clean water access in nations with high water stress.

Food and water security has also been identified as part of the Malaysia Grand Challenge by the science, technology and innovation ministry which was launched by minister Khairy Jamaluddin in January 2021. Concurrently, the recently launched 10-10 Malaysian Science, Technology Innovation and Economy Framework (MySTIE) by the Academy of Sciences Malaysia (ASM) has also identified “water and food” as one of 10 social economy drivers.

Last December, UN-Water held its 31st Special Session of the General Assembly, in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The body reiterated the urgent need for access to clean water and soap to ensure that the world population is able to come out of this pandemic safely as water is the first line of defence in a pandemic. However, about three billion of world’s population lack basic handwashing facilities at home, and better water and sanitation systems must be built in order for nations to be safeguarded from being susceptible to other pandemics in the future. Countries need to establish efficient water management systems to cope with water scarcity and food insecurity issues.

During the session, the Global Acceleration Framework was launched in order to align efforts, optimise financing and transform capacity and governance to ensure that access to clean water is available to the people of the world. This will help meet some of the goals in the UN SDG 6 by 2030, such as improving water quality by reducing pollution, eliminating dumping and minimising the release of hazardous chemicals and materials, halving the proportion of untreated wastewater and substantially increasing recycling and safe reuse globally; substantially increasing water-use efficiency across all sectors and ensuring sustainable withdrawals and supply of freshwater to address water scarcity and substantially reduce the number of people suffering from water scarcity; and implementing integrated water resources management at all levels, including through transboundary cooperation as appropriate.

Within the context of Malaysia, we have been taking steps to address this issue. The National Integrated Water Resources Management Plan published by ASM in 2016 serves as a good guide for transforming the water sector in the country. It outlines various strategies and plans to be taken at national and state levels.

Some important recommendations include the formalisation of governing policy to ensure balanced development in meeting water, food, and energy security targets, green growth through the application of the 3Rs (reduce, reuse, and recycle), etc. It is worth noting that the Water Sector Transformation (WST) 2040 project by the Economic Planning Unit of the Prime Minister’s Department is at its halfway mark, and is due to be completed by the end of this year. The National Agenda for WST 2040 aims to transform the national water sector so that water will be seen as a new economic sector that will boost national employment as well as forge Malaysia’s science, technology and innovation development and contribute to our gross domestic product.

Besides policymakers, each of us can play a part in addressing this global water issue. In 2019, statistics from the National Water Services Commission showed that consumption per capita in Peninsular Malaysia and Labuan has spiked to 230 litres per capita per day (LCD), which is 40% higher than the UN benchmark of 165 litres per person every day. This LCD value has been on the rise in recent years, i.e. up from 226 litres (LCD) in 2018 and 222 LCD in 2017. It has been reported that a single Malaysian wastes up to 50,000 litres of water yearly. We can reduce this by practising some simple habits in our daily lives like reducing time in the shower, turning off the water while brushing teeth, checking for leaks in pipes and toilets, and much more.

This World Water Day, let us all take a moment to reflect on our water habits and improve on our actions in order to ensure that there is access to clean water for the future generations. Through this, we can play a part to ensure they will have the same access to clean water that we have had the privilege of having during this last year, which has allowed us to stay healthy.

Dominic Foo does research on water minimisation and C02 reductions for the process industry.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of MalaysiaNow.