|49. Managing conflict in the Pahang River Basin, Malaysia|
|Tuesday, 29 November 2011|
Managing water resources is always a recurring issue for Malaysia especially with the dependence of its water supply on rivers and dams.
But before I attended this class, I never understood the complexity of managing these water resources. For me, as long as I had my share of clean water at the end of the day, these issues never mattered to me. How ignorant I had become! It never occurred to me that, there was more to clean water than just needing and consuming it. In fact, as Professor Walpole pointed out, for some groups of people, the river is where their life starts.
Water in the river is used not only for basic needs, but also for livelihood and national development. In Malaysia, especially its rural areas, rivers are still used in an optimal manner. For indigenous peoples, whose identities come in part from rivers, it is important to maintain their ecosystems, continue their natural flow and protect other species in the supply chain.
I was born and raised in the city. My understanding about the importance of water started when I went back to my village. At that time, water was accessed from a well and did not come from a systemized pipe system. My awareness on water grew slowly after that. Once, I spent a night in one of the indigenous people's villages along Pahang River. For them, the river is everything. It is where the children learn to swim for survival, wash clothes, cook, and for other needs. Six hours of bamboo rafting on the river the next day made me realize how ignorant I was.
Around 98% of the country's main sources of water supply are from rivers and streams. The rest of the supply comes from groundwater. Despite the abundance of over 150 river systems, storage facilities were built due to irregular river flow regimes. At the moment, there are 47 single-purpose and 16 multipurpose dams, with a storage capacity of 25 billion cubic meters.
Pahang River Basin is an important watershed in the country with a total area of 27,000 km and the longest river in Peninsular Malaysia. It supplies water not only for the Pahang State but also for nearly all other states in Peninsular Malaysia. The catchment area spans nine districts in Pahang State including Maran, Jerantut, Bentong, Lipis, Temerloh, Bera, and Cameron Highland, one sub-district of Kuantan, 11 sub-districts of Pekan, and also two districts of Negeri Sembilan State which are Jelebu and Kuala Pilah. Moreover, the river basin provides livelihood opportunities for indigenous people living in the area.
The complexity of water resources management can be seen in the control by 11 local governments of water resources planning and development in Pahang River Basin.
According to the Ninth Malaysia Plan, there will be an interstate raw water transfer project from Pahang State (Pahang River Basin) to Selangor State, and the federal territories of Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya (Langat River Basin). This interstate raw water transfer infrastructure is expected for completion in 2013, which will see a total amount of 4,000 million liters of raw water transferred daily. This will contribute to the supply of an average 300 to 500 liters consumed per head daily in urban areas.
Obviously, this entails a complicated process. The deal involves negotiations and arrangements not only between the state governments but also between districts and sub-districts. To address the complexity, there is a need for an independent company or body to oversee or manage the implementation of the project not only in terms of safeguarding the water resources to meet the water demands for both river basins, but also of addressing transboundary issues such as water pricing and protecting ecological footprints and the river surroundings. At the same time, the project should consider the welfare of indigenous peoples living along the river to make sure the project does not jeopardize their livelihood.
When Professor Walpole discussed the transboundary conflict in the Mekong River, it made me realize the similarity in complexity with the Pahang River Basin management, even though management of the Mekong River is indeed far more complex as it involves several countries and much more problematic issues. Even though the management of the river basin is meant to primarily settle water supply issues, there are still other important problems that need to be considered such as the possible disruption of the nature cycle as well as the possible adverse effects on economic activities of indigenous communities along the river.
To help regulate the water services industry, the Malaysian government set up the National Water Services Commission (SPAN) and decided to transfer the power to manage the water resources from the federal government to the state government. The main players in the negotiations are the federal government, the state government, and the water company, Puncak Niaga.
However, the Selangor state government and the water companies have so far failed to come to an agreement and to break the deadlock in their negotiations. The implication that I can see in this situation is that if the negotiation will not reach a breakthrough soon, consumers will not be provided with a water supply that is sustainable and rightly priced. Since an agreement with the Selangor state is a crucial focal point for implementing the water interstate project that would supply other states especially Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya, it is of great importance for the negotiations to come to a satisfactory conclusion. At the end of the day, I think the agreement needs to fulfill two basic requirements: first, that its management mechanism is suitable; and second, that it adequately benefits the end consumers, whether industry consumers or households.
Aside from the complex problems in reaching an agreement in managing water resources, I also have found other issues that can contribute to water problems in the future. One of it is wastage. According to a news report, Malaysians use an average of 226 liters of water per person daily, which is way above the consumption level of Singaporeans (154 liters) and the Thais (90 liters). It is believed that low water tariff led to such high water consumption. This shows that there is still a lack of awareness about the importance of water among consumers. For me, this issue needs to be tackled with education from early childhood.
Another issue that needs to be tackled by the Malaysian authorities is non-revenue water caused by pipe leakages and tampered meters. It was reported that as a result, about 20% of water supplied in Kuala Lumpur is lost.
To achieve mutual agreement and consensus for all parties involved may seem dim and unlikely. But I am still positive that people in conflict can work out their problems eventually if they manage to sit down, talk out differences and, as explained by Professor Walpole, develop trade-off points toward achieving mutual consensus.
As a media practitioner, I think that media can help provide a bridge or platform for public debates. Through public debates, we can clearly recognize the real problems and help the negotiators resolve issues. For me, media can never be the mediator because basically it lacks the knowledge and expertise needed in negotiations. However, media can at least assist in finding better solutions.
To do this, perhaps it would be best that at the minimum, media be given full access to information so that the information it then channels to the public is concise, relevant, and beneficial for them to understand the complexities or deeper realities behind any issue. We know from experience that one of the reasons why negotiations between public and government often fail is that one party is reluctant to reveal important information needed to understand the real problems that need to be addressed by these negotiations. In such a situation, media is often misunderstood. Although media is not the best mediator, it has an important role to play because it still holds the power to influence and change public perception, a fact many people tend to forget.
Ms Nor Baizura Basri is from Malaysia and is part of the student batch for SY2010-2011 and one of the Asia Leaders Program (ALP) scholars, pursuing her MA degree at the University for Peace. ALP is a dual campus masters degree project, a shared initiative between The Nippon Foundation, University for Peace, and the Ateneo de Manila University. This is her reflection paper for the lecture that Pedro Walpole gave on Practices of Conflict Management in Asia focusing on natural resources and resource use, conflict, and management last 18 to 20 April 2011.