malaysian naturalist, june 2018
Scientists, researchers and resources experts may tell you otherwise. Already, there is a clamour that humankind have mined the Earth’s resources to unsustainable proportions, and this includes the lack of clean, drinkable water. Just this year, Cape Town faced the direst of water warnings among major cities, bringing activity, commerce and good health to a grinding halt. The rest of the world may not be far behind. We’re not exempt, here in Malaysia, with recent years marked by drought despair – affecting supply in almost all states in the Peninsula and also Sabah and Sarawak – and the ubiquitous water tankers with queues hundreds-long in residential areas.
Yet, when you’re in the middle of the man-made body of water that is the Temengor dam, you can lose sight of this issue, just as much as when the taps are running full in your house. That is one of the lessons we learnt during an expedition of the country’s water sources, organised by the Department of Drainage and Irrigation (Jabatan Parit dan Saliran, or JPS) for the media and NGOs. The first expedition, in July 2017, was on the Perak River.
Starting at the JPS training centre in Ipoh, the expedition included touristy bits such as the Perak Man museum in Lenggong, Sultan Azlan Shah Gallery in Kuala Kangsar (on the site of the old Istana Ulu), Terrapin Conservation Centre in Bota Kanan and Pasir Salak Historical Complex, with dioramas of the state’s historical events. Each is worthy of a long and winding article (especially since this writer is enamoured of historical buildings, but let’s save that for another time).
The takeaway from the briefings is this: Yes, there is water, but if we continue to go on as we have, disregarding the importance of conserving water, not protecting catchment areas and mismanaging resources, the bad times are fast approaching.
Issues highlighted include:
• Logging around reservoir and catchment areas, with debris polluting water and clogging up processes at hydroelectric dams;
• Malaysia’s weather, with rains topping up reservoirs only during the monsoon season, and droughts severely affecting water levels;
• Lack of awareness in river communities, which continue to dump garbage into waterways;
• Lack of awareness on ecological services provided by the environment, including to humankind’s comfort;
• Improper sand dredging and management of our rivers, contributing to severe flooding;
• The world’s focus on energy and food, and disregard for water security, as the population explodes to 9.2 billion people by 2050; and
• That the world is facing a 40% water deficit as close as the year 2030.
And on the water, an expedition such as this brings home the truth: as a people, Malaysians are still blasé about the essence of water – where we get it from, why we should keep waterways clean, and why we need to preserve precious resources related to water, such as our forests.
As the Perak River meandered onward to the sea, however, development and human habitation take their toll. In the Royal town of Kuala Kangsar, it is a dark teh tarik brown (like tea with milk), and the state’s river beautification project, despite a new riverfront and tourism opportunities, suffers greatly from it. That’s not taking into account the massive flooding along the river in 2014, from which our inn was just recovering. Three years on, and this business in a tourist-heavy town had just reopened. There were still marks on the walls from when the river inundated the building up to one storey high.
From Kuala Kangsar, it was boats all the way to Bota Kanan, an 80km ride with seldom-seen views of trees and mountainous backdrop, interspersed with riverside garbage dumps, forests cleared for agriculture, sand dredging operations, and erosion. Meanwhile, the water crept from teh to Nescafe tarik (milky coffee), with bits floating in it, most made from plastic.
From this river we disembarked onto a jetty for the riverside water treatment plant. And yes, we got to see for ourselves, this very water funnelled into the plant, to be treated via filters and chemicals, and piped into our homes.
As we travelled along the river, and ended the expedition on another riverside in Pasir Salak, the words of Samuel Taylor Coleridge kept coming to my mind: “Water, water, every where, Nor any drop to drink” (The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, 1798). Now, the poem tells the story of a sailor who had shot and killed an albatross (thought to be a lucky omen) and the resultant stranding of the ship in absolutely calm water and the deaths of all the crew. The mariner was saved only after he appreciated the beauty of the marine animals he saw from the ship, but was cursed to eternally walk the earth and share his story as a warning to others.
Nevertheless, we can draw a parallel here to our own ravaging of Earth as we seek the fulfilment of a lifestyle of convenience, of ever-increasing development, of a throwaway culture. Let’s not destroy everything Nature has to offer and only then discover its value. We might be cursed with wandering the planet trying to share the message of environmental conservation, of our precious water, and it would be far too late.