Policy to Taps, Life and the Economy
Every last Sunday of September is dedicated to rivers around the world. This year’s World Rivers Day falls on 24 September and this article is written by WWF-Malaysia in conjunction with the celebration to highlight the value of rivers of Sarawak and the need to manage them through an integrated watershed management approach.
Kuching: Clean flowing water from the tap is what most people see on a daily basis and everyone is aware of its importance. But how many of us actually realise what it takes to provide clean water supply to all?
In May this year, the media reported that the number of treatment plants has increased from 76 to 90 in the state while projects to supply water to rural areas costing a total of RM3.54 billion were approved under the 11th Malaysia Plan for Sarawak.
Water can also be transformed into energy and ultimately electricity. In fast flowing streams, small turbines can be installed to produce electricity to rural communities. Along the mighty rivers, dams can be constructed to store massive amount of water to spin huge turbines, therefore producing electricity that lights up cities and power our industries.
Sarawakians indirectly benefit from Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy development projects, whereby power is harnessed from the rivers to stimulate economic growth, resulting in the people also paying lower electricity tariffs. When the public pay less, the state obtains lesser revenue. However, this lower revenue from reduced electricity tariffs is offset by the collection of water royalties from the hydro-dams. In 2015, it was reported that water royalty from the Bakun hydroelectric has contributed over RM100 million to the state’s coffers.
This is just a small portion of the economic potential from the rivers and the costs undertaken to provide water that people need. The values could be much more significant. Thus, it is important for us now to review and invest in the management of our river and watershed. Any development related to rivers and water must be done holistically.
WWF-Malaysia Head of Conservation Sarawak, Dr Henry Chan, said managing rivers and water resources is no easy task.
“There are many aspects to consider. Broadly, economic, social and environmental needs regarding use of water as a resource must first be looked into. Then, we need in-depth understanding of rivers that provide the source of water, their capacities and the surrounding land uses.”
To exemplify the complex issue of managing rivers and water, he said, a project that depends on clean waters cannot be planned over a place where there is excessive logging and conversion of forest into other land uses.
“Increased sediment runoffs into rivers require expensive infrastructure to process the dirt out of the muddy water. The sediments would also reduce the depth and eventually choke reservoirs. For that reason, all watersheds that are sources for gravity-feed pipe water should be free from logging,” he said.
“Likewise, development activities in a river’s watersheds should not result in sediment runoffs into rivers and increase in flash floods. This means no excessive logging and conversion of forest. Otherwise as in extreme cases, the outcome was the log jam incident along Rajang River in 2010 and which recurred in early 2017,” he elaborated.
Without adequate planning, there is ultimately a transfer of costs using public funds to address and mitigate disasters and improve water quality, as well as the loss of revenue for hydropower generation, he added.
Dr Chan called on the State Government to expand the scope of watershed and rivers management by affirming the need for actions to manage activities within watersheds.
“There are provisions under the Water Ordinance for the gazettement of water catchments to protect water supply for urban needs, but the scope can be expanded. Gravity feed systems providing untreated water supply to rural communities warrants such protection. The same applies for rivers of high conservation values that are home to rich aquatic biodiversity or economically important fish resources. Likewise the water catchments of hydropower dams need similar catchment protection,” he said.
“Improving watershed management and the state of our rivers require clear guiding policies, supported by adequate legislations, stringent enforcement and vigilant management of activities on the ground. It also requires actions beyond gazettement on paper.”
Dr Chan lauds the recent effort by the State Government to expedite the gazettement of water catchments for protection and also initiatives involving various stakeholders to cooperate to improve watershed management. An example is the workshop on integrated watershed management led by the Natural Resources and Environment Board and the Forest Department Sarawak with support from Sarawak Energy Berhad and WWF-Malaysia held last year. The workshop helped to build awareness on watershed management issues and integrated watershed management approaches involving stakeholder participations.
“It takes considerable efforts and the cooperation of many stakeholders to turn our brown water clear; and for sound policies to flow into taps, support lives and boost economy.”
“Investing in prudent watershed management with good policies will certainly be worth the value they bring in return,” he stressed.
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