The human factor in floods

KELANTAN has always been a flood-prone state and Malaysia, a flood-prone country.

We will never be free from floods in much the same way that Ethiopia will never be free from the drought. It is in the nature of our climate. However, the current floods appear to be one of the worst in recent decades.

Climate change is a likely cause as greater temperature extremes generate greater storms, stronger monsoons and heavier rains.

Yet, we also need to remember that humans have completely changed the face of the earth from natural (water absorbent and retentive) surfaces such as forests to urban (water impermeable and non-absorbent) surfaces (concrete, cement etc).

Studies have shown that if we change the land use from forest to urban, the runoff will increase more than 10 times (forest runoff averages 10% to 20% of total rainfall but urban runoff averages 80% to 90%) rendering rivers unable to cope with the huge amount of runoff entering them.

These result in much of the rain flowing on land surfaces as runoff, leading to floods.

This is the reason why Kuala Lumpur experiences flash floods every time it rains heavily although similar rainfall in surrounding areas (with forest and vegetation) do not flood.

Rivers’ drainage capacities are also significantly reduced due to sedimentation.

Studies have shown that when humans change forest to open and exposed areas (e.g. logging areas, construction areas and open agriculture areas), the rate of sediments washed into rivers (due to soil erosion) increases more than 100 times!

All the sediments are washed into rivers making them shallow. Hence, reducing the volume of water, the rivers can drain leading to frequent flooding when heavy rains occur.

Worse of all, buildings and other structures are erected right on river banks, restricting the rivers’ s ability to manoeuvre. In the deltas, sedimentation restricts flow of river water into the seas leading to backlogging of water which floods riverine areas.

In Denmark and many developed countries, governments are buying back agricultural lands from farmers to allow rivers to follow their natural course.

This will reduce flooding as rivers are able to manouevre and redistribute their energy and water in a wider environment.

Rainforests and wetlands that absorb a huge amount of rain water have been carelessly logged and totally drained for agriculture and other human land uses.

Recently, in Cameron Highlands, severe floods occurred. The main cause was due to deforestation and sedimentation of the Ringlet Lake which significantly reduced the lake’s storage capacity.

Overall, humans are the “real” cause of the current floods.

One can say that global warming and current climate change which cause more intense storms and rains (as well as stronger monsoons) are the main cause of floods now.

This may be true but global warming is largely caused by humans when we use fossil fuels and produce greenhouse gases that trap solar radiation which warms the earth and atmospheric temperatures.

So, again the root cause is human activities. To reduce flooding in the near future, we need to address the human causes of flooding.

Flood management in Malaysia is still largely dependent on structural measures (e.g. building SMART Tunnel, dams, embankments, retention ponds etc). These do not solve the root causes of flooding which are humans and their activities.

We need to put more emphasis on non-structural measures (e.g. legislation/regulation and enforcement, land use control, awareness and education, flood disaster management, flood warning etc).

A more comprehensive strategy comprising both structural and non-structural measures (in a 50-50 ratio) will go a long way to reduce floods in Kelantan and other parts of Malaysia.

Otherwise, we may yet see more flooding of greater frequency and magnitude in future. Don’t blame floods on God or Nature! Blame it on humans!


Professor in Physical Geography

Universiti Sains Malaysia

(Source: The Star)

Don’t blame God! Humans the ‘real’ cause of severe floods, says professor

I was feeling puzzled about the extreme floods in many parts of the country. We have always had floods in the East Coast, but why has the flooding been so bad and widespread this time around? To get some answers, I asked Dr Chan Ngai Weng, a professor of physical geography at USM, what he thought were the real causes of the severe floods.

This was Prof Chan’s response:

Kelantan has always been a flood-prone state and Malaysia a flood-prone country. We will never be free from floods in much the same way that Ethiopia will never be free from drought. It is in the nature of our climate.

The current floods, however, appear to be one of the worst in recent decades. Climate change is a likely cause as greater temperature extremes generate greater storms, stronger monsoons and heavier rains.

Yet, we also need to remember that humans have completely changed the face of the earth from natural (water absorbant and retentive) surfaces such as forests to urban (water impermeable and non-absorbant) surfaces (concrete, cement etc). These result in much of the rain flowing on land surfaces as runoff, leading to floods.

Rivers’ drainage capacities are also significantly reduced due to sedimentation. Worst of all, buildings and other structures are erected right on river banks, restricting rivers’ ability to manoeuvre.

In the deltas, sedimentation restricts flow of river water into the seas leading to backlogging of water which floods riverine areas.

Rainforests and wetlands that absorb a huge amount of rain water have been carelessly logged and totally drained for agriculture and other human land uses.

Overall, humans are the ‘real’ cause of the current floods. Even global warming and current climate change is largely caused by humans.

Address the human causes, and Kelantan and other parts of Malaysia will see less flooding of lesser frequencies and magnitudes.

Don’t blame it on God or Nature!

Prof Chan has a Master’s Degree in Climatology & Meteorology from University Malaya and a Doctorate in Environmental Hazards Management from Middlesex University, United Kingdom.


Ways to solve our water woes

THE current dry spell is nothing new. It is part of the normal variation in the weather patterns, although some may want to attribute it to climate change.

Malaysia experiences a wet equatorial climate with annual precipitation averaging 3,000mm, which is more than 10 times what most African countries get.

Given such abundant water resources, one would expect Malaysia to be “free” from water problems, but sadly this is not the case.

The country still suffers from many water problems caused mostly by human activities, although natural factors such as seasonal and spatial variation are also causes.

Human activities are the “root cause” of most of our water woes. Malaysians (domestic and industrail water consumers) are generally a wasteful and apathetic lot in that too much water is used and wasted in both sectors.

The main reason is that water is provided very cheap as the tariffs are heavily subsidised by the Government. One state even provides “free” water to domestic consumers.

Deforestation and destruction of water catchments, rapid population increase and economic development, all of which need water, are other root causes.

Water/river pollution is also another human cause. All these causes have resulted in the situation in the Klang Valley today.

Malaysian society too is largely a water wasting society, with the national average water consumption of 212 litres/capita/day.

In developing countries, 20 litres to 30 litres of water per person per day is considered adequate for basic human needs. Hence, Malaysians are using nearly 10 times this amount.

In comparison, Singapore’s average is only 155 litres/capita/day, India’s average is 142 litres/capita/day and China’s average is only 88 litres/capita/day.

The most wasteful consumers are found in urban areas. In Malaysia, urban dwellers use more than 500 litres/capita/day. Hence, getting Malaysians to save water is of vital importance.

Water tariffs need to be restructured to a level that encourages water savings.

Public awareness needs to be increased to change public apathy to public concern. The country must also change from the traditional Water Supply Management (WSM) approach to a Water Demand Management (WDM) approach, or at the very least a combined approach of the two.

Malaysians can help solve much of our water woes if each of us were to reduce our water demand by just 10%, which is not difficult.

For this to happen, there needs to be a year-round concerted national water conservation campaign to get all consumers on board.

Consumers need to be educated to view water with the importance they would for petrol and electricity.

Making water saving a way of life for Malaysians is the key towards sustainable national water security.

Once people and industry get used to the idea of saving water, water demands would fall and the water system will face less stress resulting in less likelihood of water rationing and water cuts.

WDM is a proven strategy that has worked well in countries such Singapore, Australia and Denmark.

There are many ways to save water. One good way to start is to stop using the hose.

For gardening, one can use a watering can. For washing cars, one can use a pail of water. Industries and businesses can also recycle water and/or install water saving equipment on their premises.



President, Water Watch Penang

(Source: The Star)

Letter to Chief Minister on Sg Pinang Part 2

YAB Tuan Lim Guan Eng

Ketua Menteri Pulau Pinang

Pejabat Ketua Menteri

Tingkat 28, KOMTAR

10503 Pulau Pinang



 Re: Proposal to Launch Sg Pinang Stakeholders’ Initiative and Sg Pinang River Education Centre 

Further to our letter to YAB on 12 March 2008 titled Water, Environment and Penang, we would further like to propose the above project which is long overdue. We at WWP would like to stress that we have proposed this project to past BN Governments but have been rejected under the excuse of lack of funds. However, as you are aware, under the Federal Government’s “One State One River” Programme, the government has been allocated RM100 million (this figure was initially reported in the press but the final figure given to Penang may differ). Despite spending this large amount of money to restore the Sg Pinang (the authorities have built a jetty for fishermen and a river water treatment plant at the Sg Pinang estuary), amongst other activities such as dredging and improving the river, the river is still as dirty as ever. This is simply because not much attention has been given to educating and sensitizing the people (public and businesses) who keep dumping garbage/untreated effluents/discharges into the river. Consequently, every tonne of garbage dredged out by the contractors is more than outpaced by two tones of garbage being dumped into the river. The authorities has not tackled the root cause of the issue, i.e. the source of all the pollution.


It is with this in mind that we propose the launching of the Sg Pinang Stakeholders’ Initiative and the Sg Pinang River Education Centre, first in Malaysia. We are confident that YAB’s government will examine this proposal with due consideration. We are all ashamed that despite being one of the most advanced states in the country, the main river that flows through Georgetown is nothing more than a raw sewer! Our proposal is attached complete with recommendations and costing. If YAB and the Penang Government needs me to explain the proposal, I will be more than happy to make a 15 minute presentation followed by Q & A.

YAB, Thank you for your attention.


Yours faithfully,

Prof Dr Chan Ngai Weng




Plan of River Education Centre 

  • Reception
  • River Museum
  • Aquarium
  • Biology Laboratory
  • Mini-Theatre
  • Models of Sg Pinang
  • Souvenir Shop
  • Hostel
  • Water/Chemistry & Hydrology Laboratory
  • Toilets
  • Canteen
  • Exhibition Boards
  • Model of Hydrological Cycle
  • Model of Sg Pinang Ecosystem
  • Model of Sg Pinang River Basin
  • Model of Pollutants entering Sg Pinang
  • Photograph Exhibition Room

A letter to CM Lim Guan Eng

YAB Lim Guan Eng

Ketua Menteri Pulau Pinang

Pejabat Ketua Menteri

Tingkat 28, KOMTAR

10503 Pulau Pinang



Re: Water & Environment in Penang 

First of all, all of us at water watch Penang would like to extend our warmest congratulations to you for being elected Chief Minister of our beloved state of Penang. First, allow me to introduce myself. I am Professor Dr Chan Ngai Weng, President of Water Watch Penang, an NGO established in 1997 and registered with the Registrar of Societies. Professionally, I teach Geography and Environmental Management (Water Resources & Hazards) at Universiti Sains Malaysia.

I read the Star paper today (12 March 2008) and it was reported after YAB was sworn in as Chief Minister at your new office in KOMTAR that YAB stressed the key areas of the new agenda for Penang included the economy, governance and social needs of the people. I have no argument with that. It’s all well and good. However, I would like to point out to YAB that all these would mean nothing without a “livable” environment with adequate clean water!

As you may be aware, Penang is a very developed and urbanized state that has regrettably destroyed much of its environment over the decades. YAB’s new state government will need to pay urgent attention to conserve, protect and rehabilitate (if needed) Penang’s environment (seas, land, forests, rivers, air, etc). If we don’t look after our environment, we will need to spend billions of Ringgit to restore and rehabilitate it in future (see Photo 1). These finds are better spent on education, welfare and other needs. Furthermore, Penang is small state with less than 7% of its land area under water catchment. What is more alarming is that 80% of our water is sourced from the Sg Muda, which has its origins in Kedah (Hence, of late, Kedah’s ex-MB have been demanding that Penang pays Kedah for the water we take as well as threatening to log the Sg Muda catchment [fortunately the Cabinet rejected Kedah’s plans]). To summarise, Penang needs to pay urgent attention to water needs in charting our future. Singapore has done so remarkably and is a good example to follow in terms of water management [with the exception of its NEWater which is recycled water from toilets!]. Without water Penang’s economy would die! Society would suffer and all the good things about transparent governance, progressive economy and just society would count for nothing!

We, from Water Watch Penang, the only water NGO in the whole country [we only deal with water and issues related to it] would like to submit the following

 Memorandum to New Penang State Government on Water Management Strategies & Policies for Penang State Water is under state control. In terms of water policies, the main policy of Penang State is the development of a Water Supply Master Plan. Currently, since the bulk of Penang’s water (80%) is drawn from the Sg Muda, which has its upper catchments in Kedah, Penang is expected to become increasingly dependent on Kedah for water. Furthermore, Kedah is already demanding that Penang pay for the water it is drawing from the Sg Muda (Penang has so far refused based on the principle that we draw water from the Sg Muda only within our boundaries, i.e. along a stretch when the Sg Muda has flowed into Penang). However, Kedah has built (and may further build) several dams along the Sg Muda and when all these dams become operational, the total flow in the downstream stretches of Sg Muda is expected to be significantly reduced to the extent that Penang will be unable to draw sufficient water. Furthermore, when the river is in “low-flow” status, the water would be too concentrated with pollutants to be of use for water supply. To compound the problem, agriculture expansion and rapid industrialization in Kedah (e.g. the Kulim High Tech Park) will adversely affect both water quantity and quality in downstream Sg Muda. The Key Issues and Problems in Water Resources Management in Penang are as follows: 

  1. The State Government and the PBAPP Sdn Bhd own very little catchment land – Much of Penang’s catchment land are privately owned. As a result, PBAPP cannot control development on its water catchment. Indiscriminate development of water catcthment, especially by private owners can lead to water pollution and destruction of water catchment. Only 10.1 % of designated catchment land in Penang has been gazetted. Other land within the water catchments are either under PBA (19.6 %), state land (3.7 %), Forest Reserve land (52.5 %) and privately owned land (14.1 %). This situation has not helped in efforts to protect water catchments from physical development, pollution and destruction. The most acute problems are caused by private owners developing their land. 
  2. Penang is dependent on other states for water and has no control over development activities in other states – The bulk (About 80 %) of Penang’s treated water are obtained from the Muda and Kulim river catchments both of which are located in Kedah. As such, Penang cannot control activities outside its borders, even when such activities can adversely affect water resources. This is not a very comforting and secure situation. Penang needs to ensure the future security of water resources. Currently, it is depending too much on other states and it has no control over activities in neighbouring states. Currently, the State’s water resources are being threatened by indiscriminate development of catchment areas (within and outside Penang State); reduced rainfall amounts in recent years, water pollution, increasing demand, conflicting land uses, and fragmented management. 
  3. There is no law for the protection of river basins – In relation to the protection of river basins, there is presently no law for this either at the State or Federal level. This is a major problem that needs to be addressed given the fact that PBA owns very little of the land on which its river basins (and water catchments) are located. Currently, it appears that not much emphasis is placed on river basin management and development as a whole. This is alarming as most developed nations have long embarked upon comprehensive river basin management towards the sustainable and effective use of water. In Malaysia, river basins often fall into two or more states. Each state often manages its own territory. As a result, one state can pollute the water resources of another. Currently, Penang draws water from the lower reaches of the Muda River which flows through Kedah before entering Penang. Kedah has earmarked ambitious high technology and industrial parks in the Kulim and adjacent areas where the Muda River flows through. It is anticipated that the water quality at the lower reaches will deteriorate in time to come. It is always problematic if there is no holistic river basin management.
  4. There is no integrated Catchment Management Plan – Currently, the management of  Penang’s water catchments is rather ineffective as the responsibility is being shared by nine different government agencies who do not share similar objectives and priorities. Although the PBA is the authority with regards to water catchments in the State, it does not always have the final say when it comes to issues related to the development of catchment land. For example, the PBA’s role was reduced to being that of the common citizen when it objected to the proposed Penang Hill Draft Local Plan in 1997. This was because a significant section of the proposed development on the hill involved one of PBA’s water catchment areas, viz. the Tat’s Stream Catchment.
  5. Pollution of Muda and Kulim rivers by development activities upstream in Kedah, as well as in Penang – Kedah has made known its intentions of rapid industrial and economic developments as manifested by the Kulim High Tech Park, industrial estates, and infrastructural developments, including the proposed Northern Region International Airport. Such developments will inevitably affect the quality of the waters in the Sg Muda and Sg Kulim at downstream stretches in Penang. Currently, pollution of these two river courses are mostly by dumping of untreated effluents from rubber and oil palm factories, and leeching of fertilisers, insecticides and pesticides from padi farming in the Muda Irrigation region. The Sg Pinang and Sg Juru are classified as Class V, i.e. totally “useless”.   
  6. Hill development is endangering water catchments and polluting (sedimentation and siltation) of downstream stretches of rivers – In Penang Island, hill development activities in the Paya Terubong hills (through housing and infrastructure developments), the Penang Hill area (through illegal farming and squatting), Bukit Gambier (Through housing developments) and the Teluk Bahang hills (through the construction of the Teluk Bahang Dam), have  resulted in the degradation of water catchments and the pollution of water quality. In Seberang Prai, industrial, infrastructural, housing and agricultural development (mostly padi farming) in the upper Muda catchment have affected water quality, especially at the Penang water intake point situated on the lower reaches of the river.  
  7. A high level of water loss due to leakages and breakages – Penang’s average Non-Revenue Water (NRW), i.e. water loss from the mains due to breakage, leakage, thefts, faulty meters, etc, is considered low in Malaysia, averaging about 20 % since 1981. In 1995, total loss was 21.9 % of total water production. Given the figure that Penang’s 1996 total water production was about 236 million cubic metres of water, it follows that the loss that year was about 51.7 million cubic metres. This is a lot of wasted water and is certainly unacceptable. In 2000,the NRW had gone up to 23.04 %. 
  8. Poor institutional cooperation – Also, in terms of the institutional framework of the water sector in Penang, there are just too many agencies with overlapping (some with conflicting) responsibilities. Many other sectors also affect water resources as there are many different kinds of developments which have an effect on the quantity and quality of its water resources. For example, hill development, hill farming, land reclamation, industrial development, infrastructure development, mining and quarrying affect water. All these activities are in general independent of one another. Each activity is under the jurisdiction of the responsible agency, for e.g. hill land development being under the Land Office, the MPPP or the MPSP and river bank development under the JPS. All these agencies work independently. There is currently no single organisation that coordinates all the activities which have an effect on water resources. For example, whereas the management of water resources for domestic and industrial/commercial uses is vested in the PBA PP Sdn Bhd (water supply has been privatized in Penang), agricultural water usage is vested with the JPS, and the monitoring and control of water pollution is under the DOE. All these bodies/agencies work independently of one another, despite claims that there is some coordination. Hence, water resources management in Penang is fragmented as the responsibility is being shared by not less than nine different government agencies who do not share similar objectives and priorities, resulting in the institutional framework for water resources management in Penang being very loose and unsatisfactory.
  9. Lack of civil society involvement in river management – Despite its large number of NGOs and active civil society in Penang, there is very little involvement amongst them in river management. Hence, millions of Ringgit spent in improving rivers in the state has shown little success, since for every 1 ton of garbage excavated by the JPS or its contractors, uncivilised people and factories/businesses dump in 2 tons or more! For river management to work, civil society and the public must be involved actively. More funds need to be spent on awareness and education rather than merely excavation works on rivers. Civil society involvement can also monitor water pollution, catchment destruction, tariffs, etc. 

In the light of the above, Penang needs to implement the following:

  • Protection of all existing water resources.;
  • Maximising the State’s water resources (find new sources);
  • Encouraging water recycling as part of a water conservation programme (to reduce abuse and wastage);
  • Increase further the efficiency of the delivery system and ensure water supply to all households;
  • Further improve cooperation with other States in the Northern Region, particularly Kedah and Perak (we may need to buy raw water from Perak or Kedah in future, just like Singapore purchasing raw water from Johor)
  • Monitor water pollution and catchment destruction/disturbance and enforce legislation related to it
  • Involve civil society in practical aspects of water management (e.g. awareness, education, fixing of tariffs, consideration of new water projects, etc). Set up a Consultative Council of Civil Society.  Generally, it is the ultimate objective of the State to achieve a 100 % domestic piped water supply to the entire State population. As such, this appears to be the main policy on water resources albeit it deals only with water supply. Although there appears to be some concern on the part of the State in terms of water resources availability and efforts to increase water supply (for example in building the Teluk Bahang dam and treatment plants), there is no clear-cut policy on water resources management from the State. Much of the above policies are centred on water supply, and this is largely left to the jurisdiction of the PBAPP Sdn Bhd, being the agency responsible for the provision of domestic and industrial water supplies (agricultural water supply is the responsibility of the JPS).    

Some proposed strategies for water resource management in Penang are as follows: 

  • The development of a sustainable long term Water Supply Master Plan
  • Continued State control of water privatisation
  • Enhancing the capacities of existing dams, e.g. the Teluk Bahang Dam
  • The building greater capacity treatment plants
  • Reducing NRW
  • Increasing the volume of intakes, e.g. new intake plant on the Sg Perai
  • Increasing the percentage of population served with piped water
  • Increasing the length and number of mains laid & changing of old pipes
  • Reducing the number of standpipes as mains are increased
  • Maintaining existing pipes
  • Protection of water catchments
  • Intensify monitoring river quality and control of river pollution
  • Active involvement of civil society 

For example, the Sg Melaka, a small river about similar size to Penang’s Sg Pinang, costs RM320 million in restoration works (Source: NST 13 Jan 2008).

We are confident that the new Penang Government will take some, if not all these suggestions into consideration. YAB, Thank you for your attention.


Yours faithfully,

Prof Dr Chan Ngai Weng