El Nino and poor water management—Will Malaysia face an extreme water crisis this year?

FILE PHOTO: REUTERS/John Vizcaino/File Photo

In a recent thought-provoking article titled “Malaysia makes it rain by seeding clouds to boost supplies and ease El Nino impact: We will face a water crisis,” the South China Morning Post (SCMP) has shed light on a pressing issue—El Nino. This captivating piece aims to create awareness and pique curiosity about the potential water crisis that looms over Malaysia. According to the article, the Malaysian government has issued a warning, cautioning that without adequate preparation for El Nino, the water crisis could intensify by November. As El Nino becomes exacerbated by climate change, reduced rainfall, and escalating water consumption, the implications are far-reaching.

Delving further into the article, we uncover various strategies to mitigate El Nino’s impact and bolster water supplies. The National Disaster Management Agency has taken a proactive step by initiating a cloud seeding operation in the northern region of the Malaysian Peninsula. Such innovative approaches hold the promise of easing the effects of this climatic phenomenon.

Furthermore, Forum Air took the opportunity to engage Kennedy Michael, an esteemed representative of the Alliance of River Three (ART!) and an influential advocate as Duta Air Kita. During this exclusive exchange, Kennedy shares his valuable insights and references, emphasizing the gravity of the water crisis that demands urgent attention from both individuals and the government. Now, let’s delve into the questions and answers that unravel the consequences we, as Malaysians, must confront together.

  • What’s the mitigation plan that Malaysia should address the impact of El Nino on water scarcity?

“Forget about mitigation. It is way past time for that. What should have been done long before was to take a truthful inventory of our actual intact forest reserves. Forests are the first element in water catchment and groundwater storage. Recently the Natural Resources, Environment, and Climate Change (NRECC) Minister Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad announced in the Dewan Rakyat that our actual forest cover is 42.9%. However, there are conflicting findings on this matter. RimbaWatch has highlighted a concerning observation: approximately 2,346,601 hectares of forests in Malaysia have been designated for deforestation, potentially leading to a decrease in our forest cover to 15,636,737 hectares, or 47.35% of our total land area, in the future. It is worth noting that this falls below Malaysia’s commitment, as stated by our NRECC minister, to maintain at least 50% of our land as forest cover. In addition to this, Nik Nazmi himself, addressed to News Strait Times (NST) to fully review and verify RimbaWatch’s findings before it is able to concur or dispute the prediction.

We know that intact forests “encourage” more rainfall, capture and store more rainfall and prevent flooding. We should have mitigated this by protecting our intact forests and preventing deforestation and forest fragmentation.”


  • What’s cloud seeding actually? What public should know about it, in the simplest way? 

“Cloud seeding is a chemical intervention to get water molecules in clouds to condense and become heavy enough to fall as rain in a particular area. It is basically changing water from one state – gas (clouds, water vapour, atmospheric moisture in the air) to condense and change state to water falling as rain.”


  • How effective has water rationing been and would it sustain Malaysians throughout El Nino?

“We have not had water rationing for a long time. I think it must have been at least two decades since we last had “catuan” air. It has seen us through low water supply times in the past but with much hardship and economic impacts. However, part of it is due to how Malaysians waste water. So, water rationing can be made more effective by lowering the distributed treated water pressure so that the flow rate is reduced and therefore the volume is reduced. This can help see us through El Nino, provided it is done in concert with other measures.”

  • Public play an essential role in water consumption. How to ensure the public knows how they can participate in decision-making and know why they need to conserve water?

“The public already knows that treated water is limited. It is not an infinite resource. In fact, to quote Bill Bryson from his book “A Short History of Nearly Everything” there are only 1.3 billion cubic kilometres of water on earth and that is all we are ever going to get”. Of that, only 3.8 % of it is fresh water and of that, only 0.036% is found in lakes, rivers and reservoirs with just 0.001% per cent of that existing as water vapour in the form of clouds. So, public participation in decision-making is quite simple. They have to make a decision to conserve water and use it responsibly!”

  • Illegal tapping of water disrupts the distribution of water, worsening our water supply during El Nino. In what way can a member of the public identify and report illegal tapping activity?

“As I know it, Air Selangor, among other water regulators and suppliers are working hard to track and end illegal water tapping. It is not an easy task and one way they are monitoring this is by using technology to monitor how water leakages occur within a given distribution system and fix it. This is mainly used in the case of old pipes that are buried underground. There is a need to develop technology and innovation to monitor water theft so that this can be stopped effectively.”



Kennedy also added his call-to-action and encouraged individuals to adopt practical solutions to reduce their water footprint and conserve water. 

  1. Set up a comprehensive rainwater harvesting system that includes a built-in pump and primary and secondary filters. The estimated cost for such a system ranges from RM1,000 to RM4,000. This solution allows you to collect rainwater and have a reliable source of water for washing and cleaning even during water disruptions. Alternatively, a more budget-friendly option is to invest in an external water tank with a capacity of at least 5,000 gallons, costing less than RM1,000. This can be utilized during water disruptions while occupying minimal space.
  2. Utilize kitchen wastewater for irrigating plants, especially by capturing and reusing rice water (the water used to wash rice), which is beneficial for plant growth.
  3. Reduce the frequency of car washes from daily to once a week or once a month at a car wash. Instead, employ the use of harvested rainwater in buckets for manual washing and rinsing of cars.
  4. Optimize kitchen sink usage by rinsing crockery and utensils in a basin to remove grime before washing them with soapy water in another basin. For the final rinse, position an empty basin and fill it with the soaped and rinsed crockery, under the faucet to coll ct and rinse off the soapy, minimizing water consumption during dishwashing.
  5. The transition from using a shower to using a bucket and dipper for bathing. This habit adjustment significantly reduces water usage. During water cuts, utilizing a washcloth and a bucket of water further conserves water.
  6. Take action to preserve and safeguard local water sources such as rivers, streams, and waterfalls. These natural resources can serve as secondary or emergency water supplies if necessary.
  7. Consider incorporating raw vegetables and fruits into your diet as an alternative to cooking them. This dietary choice can contribute to water conservation efforts.
  8. For smaller households, particularly during nighttime, practice flushing the toilet only once a day. Flushing consumes at least 5 litres of water per flush. Use the toilet seat cover to control odours. This practice is commonly observed in rural areas of Australia and Canada where piped water is unavailable.
  9. Promote reforestation and afforestation initiatives to replenish forests, as they play a crucial role in storing and replenishing groundwater. Groundwater should only be utilized as a last resort during severe water shortages

The over-extraction of our groundwater, that has taken millions of years to accumulate, is nothing short of stealing water from our future generations. No development is worth even the paper it is written on if we destroy for it the very element on which life depends.

Written by Kennedy Michael & Fauziyah

Edited by Shahirah Anuar 

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