MALAYSIA Tanah Tumpah Darahku



10 APRIL 2024

Saturday, July 30, 2022

Ending Penang’s water woes, by sea and by pee


This week the environment and water minister told Penang to dig underground for its own water supply, and not rely on buying water from Kedah.

That sounds fair enough on the face of it. Being self-sufficient is important for survival, especially in today’s world.

However Penang, even if it doesn’t have much natural resources, is already one of the most self-sufficient and resilient states in the country.

I’m surprised the minister didn’t tell Penang to boil the sea water, as we’re surrounded by it and you can get fresh water that way too. Ask the Emiratis in the Gulf – they have massive plants that do this, day in and day out.

Or we can do what Singapore does – the pee from its citizens, and turn it into potable water, hence creating a new circle of life – eat, drink, pee and be merry, and repeat.

The minister however didn’t mention that environment-wise, drawing water from the ground aquifers is not a good idea. It leads to depletion of such water supply, which cannot be replenished fast enough by rainfall, even in today’s increasingly wet weather.

Many parts of the world, especially the US, are suffering from having drawn too much water from their aquifers, leading to problems ranging from increasing salinity to ground subsidence.

Drawing too much water, even for agriculture, can be detrimental to the environment in other ways too. Witness the case of the Aral Sea in Central Asia which has shrunk to less than 10% of its original size when river water was diverted away from flowing into it.

Rusted and abandoned ships in a former port city in Uzbekistan where the Aral Sea has dried up. (United Nations pic)

You may think less sea means more land. But the land exposed is salty and contaminated by centuries of pollution deposited on the sea bed which has turned into toxic dust blown everywhere by wind.

And of course, there’s no water any more for agriculture or other purposes.

These are just the problems we know now. The water cycle is very complex, with many interactions between various biological, chemical and geological forces not yet known, but all of which are guaranteed to be bad for us humans in the long term.

I hope somebody from the Penang water authority will remind the minister that Penang has one of the best, if not the best, water management systems in the country, in terms of quality, distribution and prevention of leakages.

If Penangites do use up more water than some, it’s also because we don’t have convenient rivers besides our houses to serve as free water supply (or as toilets and garbage dumps) as in some other states.

Doing it Singapore-style

I’m sure if we need to, we can do what Singapore does – buy raw water from surrounding states, treat it and sell it back at a special price.

Or as mentioned earlier, we can also do the other thing Singapore does – turn raw pee into pure drinking water. We can sell this to surrounding states too, though at a much higher price, as Penang is a highly developed state and our pee is of a higher quality.

We can even trademark it as “Peenang Juice”. Remember, you heard it here first.

The tone of the minister’s comments, even if he was just reading from a prepared statement, is one of condescension that seems to say “we have water, you don’t have water, nanananana…”

I’m sure many people in other states look at Penang’s perennial water challenge with undisguised glee, given the plentiful water supply in their states.

That attitude is typical of today’s entitled people, politicians included, being proud of what they inherited through blind luck rather than earned through hard work.

But Penang does need to seriously look at other options for water, as it only has small rivers which are insufficient to support its needs.

I used to work in a large complex of medical device manufacturing plants in Penang, each of which was the largest of its type in the world. We used up so much water we had our own water treatment plant that’s larger than those in most towns.

Clearly this was not sustainable in the long term, and the factories have closed and moved to Thailand. They certainly wouldn’t have survived in Penang without water from neighbouring states, for which we should be thankful.

But the factories also provided employment to 4,000 people directly, and indirectly to hundreds or even thousands more. Millions, nay billions, entered the local economies of Penang and the surrounding states, including by adding value to local commodities which were exported as premium products.

I think many in Kedah take their plentiful water supply for granted.

Turning from rice to mud

Kedah has always been an agriculture state, growing rice and other crops as their main source of income, even while their local politicians grew giddy with excitement about billions of ringgit in unspecified “minerals” to be exploited in their state.

I don’t want to spoil their fun, as I’m not privy to whatever information they have about these “minerals”, but I’d like to remind them that mud contains mineral too, though they’d have to sell millions of hectares of it, likely to Penang, to earn the billions they’re dreaming about.

Here’s some other bad news – planting rice is highly damaging to the environment given the plant’s voracious need for fresh water. At some point we’d have to come up with a better way to grow rice, possibly through hydroponic – or even hydropeenic – cultivation!

We may have to change our diet and do with less rice and more of other environmentally friendly crops. But bread and roti canai and other sources of carbohydrates, perhaps quinoa for those who live in the “kayangan”, are not too bad, given that our young ones already seem to survive on MacDonald’s anyway.

The irony is that while Kedah is cutting down its hills, indirectly causing floods which have killed its own citizens and made rivers murky and polluted with silt and pesticides and fertiliser, the silt from the same hills is being deposited into the sea off Penang, and will end up creating even more land for Penang!

So, Penang is getting land (very valuable topsoil that’s been washed of pollutants) from Kedah for nothing! Given we don’t do much agriculture any more, and water is scarce because Kedah is reluctant to sell us more, we can build factories or condominiums and sell them to rich Kedah durian farmers.

In the meantime, while we negotiate with Kedah for water purchases, we should also negotiate for commissions on the billions of ringgit of economic wealth pushed to places like Kulim and Sungai Petani because of their proximity to Penang.

Or else let Kedah dig deep underground for their own wealth. - FMT

The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of MMKtT.

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