Valuing Water through Community Empowerment in Malaysia

Cleaning efforts in Klang River which flows through Kuala Lumpur and Selangor. Credit: The Star

A Four-Part Series on Water (Part 3: Community Empowerment in Malaysia)


97% of Malaysia’s water supply is from its rivers and streams. Unfortunately, pollution stemming from rapid urbanization has caused Malaysia to rapidly lose its precious, vital supply of water. In addition to the increasingly frequent water supply disruption, flash floods are becoming more common. This is not unexpected when the capacity of drainages is compromised by litter and having to deal with the backflow of excess water during heavy rainfall. Key to this predicament is the ignorance in valuing water.

Despite its Abundance, Malaysia is at Risk of Insufficient Water Supply

Water is abundantly available in Malaysia with an average annual rainfall of 3000 mm resulting in a total of 990  billion cubic metres (bcm) of rainwater. Of which, an estimated 566 bcm (57%) of rainwater runs off as surface flow and in the river systems annually.

Despite its abundance, there is a worring trend of an increasing domestic demand for water, rising from 2,029 million m3 in 2,000 to 5,904 million m3 in 2,050 (~three-fold increase). As is, eight out of 11 states in Peninsular Malaysia are exposed to water supply risks. Population growth and urbanization, industrialization and the expansion of irrigated agriculture are already imposing rapidly increasing demands and pressure on water resources, besides contributing to the rising water pollution, climate change effect and various other anthropogenic effects that disrupts the water supply chain. If these issues are not addressed, Malaysia’s water supply will be heavily contested for, resulting in few winners and many losing parties.

Devalued Water: Ignorance of Water Footprint and Forgotten Lessons from the Past

Rapid advancement has also led to the inculcation of detrimental behavioural changes. Among others, the accessibility of obtaining basic needs such as obtaining instant potable water by switching on the taps and easily available bottled water have led Malaysians to take water for granted. Not only would future generations be attuned to such convenience, they would also develop an ignorance of how finite water is as a resource, how their lifestyle and food consumption patterns impact water sustainability and sadly, forgetting crucial lessons from the past.

Recently, Malaysia’s National Water Services Commission (SPAN) reported that each Malaysian consumes an average of 230 litres of water per day, approximately 154 1.5 litre bottled water. This average daily consumption is 39% more than the 165 litres recommended by the United Nations (UN). Through numerous campaigns, SPAN hopes to reduce water usage of Malaysians to 180 litres per person per day by 2025. Unfortunately, with the current rate of consumption, achieving the target may be a tall order.

Water consumption in Malaysia is increasing, in line with the increasing population, at an annual rate of 4% and projected to reach 20 billion m3 by 2020. Malaysia has done well as the potable water supply coverage reaches 96.7% Malaysia’s population. This means that most Malaysians in both rural and urban areas have access to clean water. Unfortunately, this achievement is marred by frequent water supply disruptions especially in cities. Further confounding cities are Malaysian’s urban lifestyle and food consumption patterns which impact sustainability (e.g. include higher meat consumption, consumeristic lifestyle, longer working hours where eating out is now more regular).

Furthermore, measures taken to curb the COVID-19 pandemic increased the usage of plastics wastes, i.e.  floatable waste including food packaging used for food deliveries and take away options, used disposable masks, empty sanitizer and disinfection bottles were observed in the waterways. To address this, numerous initiatives were actively carried out during the Movement Control Order (MCO), the Conditional Movement Control Order (CMCO), the Recovery Movement Control Order (RMCO) movement control phases to create awareness and enhance the sense of belonging among public. This entailed promulgating effective water conservation methods, raising awareness on the use of water, encouraging recycling and reuse of water when appropriate, and conducting initiatives to protect and clean the waterways and rivers. At the heart of these initiatives is education.

The current education system in Malaysia has seemingly deemphasized the importance of the environmental resources for human needs and to live in harmony with nature. Previously, there was a subject specifically on environment, now it is reduced to a sub-component in various subjects in primary and secondary schools while being incorporated as part of mandatory credit hours to fulfil to graduate from tertiary institutions. The significance of these lessons is at risk of not resonating with students, or worse being deemed as inconvenience to fulfil requirements of the education system. Unfortunately, it may be ingrained in students that success in life is measured by financial wealth rather than ecological wealth.  This reinforces the detachment between human and nature.  Confounding the situation is the ignorance among parents themselves, thus, future generations lose an important source of guidance to care for the environment. Past lessons on water conservation and saving initiatives i.e. rainwater harvesting, protection of stream and water bodies for food supply and alternative water usage, reusing water to as well as composting of food waste when not passed down further drives the collapse of environmental sustainability.

This is aptly captured in the rivet metaphor originally developed by Paul and Anne Ehrlich, “Each act of environmental destruction (loss of a species, in the original metaphor) is like pulling a rivet from the plane’s wing. The wing has lots of rivets, so nothing happens when the first few rivets go. But eventually and inevitably, as more rivets are pulled, the wings break off and the plane crashes.”

Empowering the Malaysian Community

To prevent an environmental collapse, the federal and the state government as well as the relevant agencies need to take drastic and significant actions, beyond structural measures. This entails expanding the scope of resource management, through demand side approaches such as the inclusion of the nation’s biggest untapped resource – the people. While the government is addressing the issue through legislations and policies, Malaysians themselves need to be empowered so they too can play a significant role to monitor, protect, handle issues related to water resource management. Civil Society organizations such as the Global Environment Centre (GEC) has initiated such empowerment programmes within the Klang Valley area in Kuala Lumpur through the citizen science approach. This approach entails the coupling of skills while creating awareness. By ensuring that the public is equipped with awareness, knowledge and skills, only then can they take action to fix the problems at hand. By investing in the people, they can make a difference by changing their daily habits.  Additionally, they would be more receptive to being co-opted as citizen scientists/local champions to protect natural resources in Malaysia.

To empower communities, crucial lessons on 1) water resource restoration/balancing, 2) water conservation, and 3) water waste management must be promulgated.

1) Water Resource Restoration/Balancing– This aims to assist the community identify and integrate the components of water resource for its sustainable management. A key driver is the reduction of the water footprint or wastage and increasing water storage. This promotes restoration and rehabilitation of water resource to meet its intended usages.

2) Water Conservation – This lesson equips communities with the knowledge to protect and sustain sources of existing water supply and venturing into safeguarding alternative water supply for non-portable use. Alternative Water supply includes rainwater harvesting, groundwater and water recycling, increasing water storages such as through – groundwater storages, tree planting, and river restorations and rehabilitations. This also includes promoting management and conservation of water and river stretches via reduction of pollution and solid waste.

3) Waste Water Management – This component focuses on the disposal of wastewater at water bodies. The community are taught and invited to initiatives such as the development of sustainable drainage systems and pollution controls by biofiltration systems (e.g. via infiltration basin, constructed wetland, water regeneration and rain gardens for storm water regulation). Through this lesson, the importance of maintaining biodiversity in riverine management is iterated – the ecosystem acting as natural filters that is sadly often disregarded today.


Through increased awareness and empowerment in the form of knowledge and skills, Malaysians would be better equipped, potentially more receptive to participate in ensuring a continued water supply for all. Such receptiveness also inculcates a sense of ownership for the environment and increases the likelihood of passing down vital lessons to future generations.

Part 1: Tackling Riverine Litter in Indonesia: All Contributions Matter

Part 2: Sustainable Water: Lessons from an Indonesian Community Forest in a “Barren Village”

Part4: The Inconspicuous Truth of Singapore’s Water: Cleaned rather than Clean

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of STRAT.O.SPHERE CONSULTING PTE LTD.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence. Republications minimally require 1) credit authors and their institutions, and 2) credit to STRAT.O.SPHERE CONSULTING PTE LTD  and include a link back to either our home page or the article URL.


  • Dr. Kalithasan Kailasam is currently the Manager of the River Care Programme where he coordinates GEC’s work on lake and river management, pollution control and environmental education programme.

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