KOTA KINABALU: Malaysians are very lucky to be blessed with the abundance of water within their midst.
They are lucky because water comes from within the country’s border, hence no one can control its supply, said academician Mark K. Brindal during his visit to the Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS) to give a talk on the Australian experience on water issues recently.
Brindal, who is attached to the Environment Institute for the University of Adelaide and is also South Australia’s ex-minister of water resources, said however that having an abundance of water flowing along our rivers does not necessarily translate to having enough water to cater for the nation.
There are two reasons why water scarcity occurs. One is due to the lack of it, and the other is due to having low and even bad quality water supply due to pollution. And what is happening in Malaysia, and in Sabah, generally, is the latter.
“The problem with most Asian region and also in Malaysia, I think, is the quality problem. You put sewerage in your water.”
The direct dumping of sewerage, toxic and other waste direct into water bodies must be stopped. Such actions will cause further contamination of its rivers, he said.
“(And) If we destroy the river, we destroy ourselves,” he said.
He cited that India is facing a similar problem with its Ganges River.
The Ganges, he said, is a sacred river, but the way it has been managed is killing the river.
“The Ganges river is one of the world’s most polluted rivers.”
Brindal went further to explain the results of drinking water from apolluted source: “Half the people in the world’s hospital beds today are occupied by people suffering from water borne diseases. Water borne diseases are the biggest common diseases of humans today and the single biggest cause of child mortality.”
“A lot of people have that problem in Asia. It is not because there is not enough water. It is a problem of not having clean water. It is not a problem of water quantity but of water quality.”
He added that in more developed countries like Australia, water borne diseases are not a problem.
“Our problem is different: Ours is a dry country, and in summer, our rivers are dry. Our government controls the water. You cannot take water unless you have permission and have the license to do so. You can take for human and animal consumption, but not for crops. In Australia, you can own water the same way you can own land, so what we have is the private ownership for water,” he said.
The practice, he said, has made some people very wealthy. Yet the biggest lesson from the whole experience would be this: “Before, you didn’t care whether you use water efficiently or not. Now, water is an input. By selling water, you can maximise profit. Because water having value, you get people to utilize it better and this was very important during the drought. In the drought, our rice farm cannot grow rice
because there is not enough water, so what the rice planters did was to sell the water they had to those planting grapevines and fruit trees and got loads of money from it. And they were able to survive the drought. That was what’s right about the system.”
In the context of Malaysia, where the issue relevant to water supply is connected to issues of water contamination, the underlying solution might be for the Malaysian policy maker to create property rights, not with water, but with land.
“The thing about rights issue is that you can put property
responsibility with the land.”
He explained that in this case, farmers who own lands, could be given, either through legislation or incentives to actually deal with the pollution on their own farm and not allow their ‘pollutants’ to leak into rivers and other water body during heavy rainfall and so on.
“That way, the nation can get clean rivers without any cost to the government.”
Nevertheless, he cited that it would still be difficult (for government) to deal with non-point source like farms that can stretch for hundreds of miles.
On the Kinabatangan River pollution issue, what Brindal suggested was for the Sabah government to work with UMS and to use the unversity’s resources.
UMS has just established its own water research unit and according to Brindal, the unit is well positioned to address water pollution in Sabah as the people heading it are those who understand the chemistry of water and have the expertise.
“Even though it’s just starting, they got the right people to start fixing the biggest problem straight away.”
He also suggested for the government to use the service of the
university to approach those involved in farming oil palms, in
particular the smallholders, to find and adopt better farming methods and education.
“They may not be formally educated, but most of them are clever and have great wisdom in their land and in the way they use their land. They are not unintelligent … so I am advocating that the government use the service of university, which is a community resource, and reach out to the people. The government would need to fund these activities.”
With education and better awareness, changes in attitude will usually occur within five years, he said.
“In 10 years, you will start seeing measureable result, and within 20 years, you will be able to transform a river,” he said.
He added that some people might think the 20 years period is too long.
He argues, “Twenty years is less than one generation. We have taken maybe 60 years to wreck a river, and if we take 20 years to fix it, I think that is reasonable. Unfortunately, everyone in this modern world wants everything fixed within two minutes. The problem with environment is you can’t fix it in two minutes. It took us years to muck it up, and if we take 20 years to fix it, we probably have done it very quickly.”