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The Global Climate Crisis and Water in Malaysia: 10 Things You Need to Know

The global climate crisis is disrupting weather patterns and leading to extreme weather events. Malaysia is not spared, as our many water issues can attest to.

We have our own fair share of unpredictable water availability, water scarcity and contaminated water supplies across borders.

Here are 10 things you must know about water problems that will only get worse in Malaysia:

#1: Heavier Rainfall Expected

According to the World Bank and Asian Development Bank’s 2021 publication Climate Risk Country Profile – Malaysia, a 2015 study of rainfall trends on the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia between 1970 and 2010 observed a significant increase in annual rainfall. This also occurred during the monsoon period. It also found an increase in the number of days classified as heavy rainfall (i.e. days with rainfall of more than 20 millimetres)[1].

According to UN research found that the maximum annual rainfall intensity has only increased substantially globally, i.e. “the one-hour, three-hour and six-hour periods of rain between 2000 and 2007 have risen by 17%, 29% and 31%, respectively, compared with the period of 1970-1980[1].

#2: Rising Sea Level

In 2019, Climate Central issued a report stating that over the course of the 21st century, “global sea levels are projected to rise between about 2 and 7 feet… and possibly more.” It further noted that the threat was “concentrated in coastal Asia and could have profound economic and political consequences within the lifetimes of people alive today.”[2]

Climate Central’s interactive threat maps project that between 2030 and 2050, peninsular Malaysia’s western and eastern shores will be inundated by the waters of the Malacca Straits and the South China Sea. It is likely that as much as 12,000 square kilometres of coastal property or up to 1.7 million hectares of agricultural and urban landmass would be submerged[2].

Source: Harian Metro

This sea level rise will also spell trouble for the Bajau Laut or Sea Gypsies. Many communities built their homes along the coastlines. As such, in addition to losing their homes to increased coastal flooding, the Bajau Laut communities will also be adversely affected by accelerating coastal erosion, increased disease risks and seawater intrusion into freshwater sources[3].

The towns expected to be the worst hit by this problem are Tawau, Kudat, Lahad Datu, Sandakan and Kota Kinabalu, all of which have Bajau Laut communities living nearby. The village of Kampung Tanjung Aru Lama is already experiencing some of the effects of sea-level rise. Some residents have noticed that the tide has been getting higher and higher over the past few years. The higher tide had not only resulted in increased flooding but also washed trash from surrounding areas into the villagers’ homes[4].

#3: More Frequent Flooding

With the heavy rain and sea level rise, it should be no surprise that flooding has increased over the past few years.

Although Malaysia, especially the Klang Valley, is no stranger to flooding, it is clear that these floods have become more frequent in recent years. In 2021, the Klang Valley experienced one of the most devastating floods in recent history on December 17 and 18, after two days of continuous rainfall, followed by (minor) floods on March 7 and April 25, 2022[5].

For many citizens, these floods are a waking nightmare that forces them out of their own homes.  They desperately seek higher ground with what few possessions they can rescue.

A study conducted by C40 Cities predicts that if we fail to reverse the current climate trends, KL will be at an even greater risk of devastating floods by 2050[6]. The study also found that river flooding is expected to cost C40 cities RM599 billion (US$136 billion) in GDP each year over the next three decades. Additionally, it said over 300 power stations across C40 cities are at risk of being flooded by 2050[7].

#4: Heatwaves And Droughts

Based on the World Bank and Asian Development Bank’s 2021 report, “Between 1970-2013, Peninsular Malaysia, Sabah and Sarawak experienced surface mean temperature increases of 0.14-0.25°C per decade.”[1]

Surface maximum temperatures increased by 0.17-0.22°C per decade during the same period, while surface minimum temperatures increased by 0.20-0.32°C per decade.”[1]

The rising temperatures will lead to extended heat waves and even droughts, which will reduce the water supply and increase water pollution. Based on the Water Resources Study for 2015 to 2050, the northern states of Perlis, Kedah and Penang are projected to experience a water shortage of 221 million to 246 million cubic metres (mcm). Selangor and Melaka could see water shortages of 1,000mcm and nearly 200mcm to 33mcm respectively[8].

A study conducted by C40 Cities predicts that more frequent and severe droughts will increase water losses in C40 cities by 26 per cent and will cost RM488 billion (US$111 billion) in damages per year by 2050[7].

#5: Spread Of Diseases And Other Health Problems

Frequent flooding can potentially lead to the spread of diseases. Floodwaters are largely filled with all manner of filth and bacteria. As such, ingesting or making skin contact with these contaminated waters is a good way of contracting infectious diseases such as dysentery and cholera[9].

Additionally, heat waves and droughts can cause dehydration and heat-related illnesses such as heat exhaustion and heatstroke. And rising temperatures will also accelerate the growth and proliferation of pathogens in water sources.

#6: Impending Crisis For Farmers

The effects of climate change on agriculture are already being felt in Kedah, known as “Malaysia’s Rice Bowl”. Rice farmers who depended on age-old weather prediction methods are being dumbstruck by the drastic changes in weather patterns, leading to decreasing crop yields as more and more rice plants die off[10].

Source: The Star

According to the World Bank and Asian Development Bank report, “Modelling suggests that occurrence of droughts and floods early in the rice growing season could reduce yields by up to 60%. Drought conditions may result in an inability to cultivate rubber, palm oil and cocoa.”[1]

The problems will only worsen with rising sea levels flooding agricultural land. According to the banks, “Rising sea levels are predicted to have significant negative impacts for Malaysia’s coastal zone, with the most impact felt on the east coast.”[1]

Approximately 6% of palm oil production and 4% of rubber production is currently at risk from sea-level rise.”[1]

#7: Economic Casualties

According to conservative estimates, sea level rise will cost Malaysia, RM4.53 trillion, based on a valuation of RM33 per sq ft. Not even Malaysia’s robust nominal gross domestic product of RM1.6 billion (US$387 billion) in 2021 could sustain that astonishing level of loss[11].

However, that is not the only thing that will be lost to sea level rise if we don’t do anything about it. Various private and commercial properties as well as invaluable farmland (for both food production and cash crops) are also at risk of being submerged. Furthermore, job losses would be colossal. Equally catastrophic, mass migrations away from swamped areas would be expected to cause social and political turmoil[11].

Malaysia’s ongoing efforts to grow the economy by reclaiming 82 sq km of land along the East Coast of Malaysia couldn’t replace the eroded 33,000 sq km of landmass seized hostage by the sea[11].

#8: Inconsistent Water Supply And Poorer Sanitation

Places like Klang Valley and Kedah are already having problems with water supply cuts. Climate change will only worsen this problem as rising temperatures will cause droughts that will reduce the water supply. This will exacerbate water stress and lead to increased competition or even conflict over water supplies, such as what is currently happening between Penang and Kedah.

Source: Malaysia Now

According to the National Hydraulic Research Institute of Malaysia’s (Nahrim) Extension Study of the Impact of Climate Change on the Hydrologic Regime and Water Resources of Peninsular Malaysia:

Global warming will affect peak flow, causing more extreme floods at river basins in the country, such as those in Johor, Kedah and Perak, as well as in Sabah and Sarawak.”[12]

On the other hand, the decrease in monthly river flow and shifting of dry spells at river basins, such as Padas and Kinabatangan in Sabah, Limbang and Sadong in Sarawak, and Muda in Kedah, will affect future water availability.”[12]

Drought or reservoir storage analysis based on 15 climate change scenarios, or projections, in Bekok Dam shows that there will be several critical drawdown periods from 2010 to 2100.”[8]

The lack of a proper water supply will adversely affect our health and sanitation. In 2017, the United Nations recorded over 2 billion people without basic sanitation and access to toilets. Water is crucial for hygiene and sanitation, which affects billions of people worldwide. This is especially true for women and young girls with menstrual cycles. Without water, they suffer and expose themselves to health risks almost every day[13].

#9: More Water Pollution

There is also the possibility that climate change will exacerbate water pollution. Floods can discharge sediment and disrupt a region’s wastewater treatment systems, increasing our risk of exposure to bacteria, parasites, and other unhealthy toxins[14].

Meanwhile, warmer temperatures will promote the growth of harmful algae which produce toxins that are harmful when ingested. Not only does this contaminate our water, but also the fish we eat[14].

With the Klang Valley already suffering from pollution-caused water cuts, the increase in water pollution caused by climate change will only worsen an already challenging situation.

#10: Increased Landslides

In Malaysia, landslides are frequent and common due to our constant heavy rainfall. Malaysia sits among the top 10 countries with a high number of landslides over the past decade[15].

And unfortunately, with climate change bringing in heavier and longer periods of rainfall together with deforestation in our country, these landslides will only increase in frequency and scope if we don’t do something about them.

Source: NST

Adding to the problem is that landslides can also pollute our sources, contaminating lakes and reservoirs with mud and heavy metals. Even if the water in our home isn’t cut off, mudslides can still have adverse effects on the freshwater coming into our taps. The sediment, silt, and heavy metals that get into the water after a mudslide depend on what’s in the terrain. It can be anything from hazardous waste to excess nitrogen, to carbon, and cadmium[16].

Increased turbidity due to sediments entering the water also makes it more difficult for the water to be disinfected by the sun’s rays. This can lead to algal blooms that grow toxic cyanobacteria. Mudslides can negatively impact sewage disposal systems and water treatment plants by sending more sediment and debris into the system than the plant can handle[16].

Explore our sources:

  1. M. Lum. (2022). The effects of climate change in Malaysia. The Star. Link.
  2. P. Banergee. (2022). How to Save Thailand and Malaysia From Rising Sea Levels. The Diplomat. Link.
  3. Impact of Climate Change to Sea Level Rise in Malaysia. (2019). National Hydraulic Research Institute (Nahrim) Link.
  4. A. Yusof. (2021). Sabah sea gypsies grapple with dwindling fish catch, sinking villages as climate change threatens way of life. Channel News Asia. Link.
  5. A. Yeo. (2022). Will Kuala Lumpur become the next flooding city like Jakarta? Emir Research. Link.
  6. Water Safe Cities. (n.d.) C40 Cities. Link.
  7. T. Arumugam. (2022). KL at greater risk of climate-related flooding by 2050, new study finds. New Straits Times. Link.
  8. M.B. Salleh. (2022). Water: Keeping Malaysia hydrated. The Edge Markets. Link.
  9. Dr M. Shahruddin. (2022). With floods come infectious diarrhoeal diseases. The Star. Link.
  10. S.L. Leoi, I. Hilmy & H. Sivanandam. (n.d.). The Sea Also Rises. The Star Shorthand. Link.
  11. P. Banergee. (2021). Malaysia’s fateful choice as land crisis looms. The Malaysian Insight. Link.
  12. F. Aziz. (2014). Climate change will affect water supply. New Straits Times. Link.
  13. United Nations. (2022). Water. Link.
  14. APHA. (n.d.). Climate Changes Health: Water Quality and Accessibility. Link.
  15. S.L. Leoi, A. Chan & N. Trisha. (2018). Malaysia among countries especially prone to landslides. The Star. Link.
  16. A. Scavetta. (n.d.). How Mudslides Contaminate Your Water Supply. Aquasana. Link.

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