Months of Water Rationing Leave a Lot of Throats Parched : Kuala Lumpur’s Taps Tapped Out
The New York Times
By Thomas Fuller
Published: August 6, 1998
T. Shanmuganathan does not remember the last time he had two consecutive days of running water.
“Sometime in April or May,” said the civil engineer, whose two-story house sits in a middle-class neighborhood among hundreds of similar dwellings. In fact, Mr. Shanmuganathan says, he has counted a total of 10 days of running water since February.
Mr. Shan, as his friends call him, is not alone. About 1.8 million people in and around this modern and relatively wealthy city — more than half of its population — have not received water regularly for months. Some have water on alternate days, some have gone for weeks at a time without it and others have resorted to collecting rain in buckets.
Months of rationing by local water authorities — made necessary by a dry 1997 and dangerously low reservoirs — are taking an increasingly heavy toll on the citizens here.
Officials say the situation is starting to improve, but the crisis has left scars. For Kuala Lumpur residents the past 12 months have been filled with economic turmoil, smoky skies from nearby forest fires and riots by foreign workers trying to avoid deportation. But it is the water crisis that has hit closest to home.
“I can take it,” Mr. Shan said. “But the children — we’re in the tropics and you need to wash.”
Ecologists say poor planning of the region’s water supply infrastructure has deepened a crisis originally brought on by the relatively dry weather. Although rainfall from January to May was slightly above the 30-year average for that period, the longer-term dry spell meant the current year started with a serious water deficit.
One of the most striking images of the crisis has been of people waiting in the pouring rain to fill buckets from a truck provided by the public works department. Mr. Shan reckons this has happened to him eight times.
How long will rationing last?
“There’s no telling,” said Che Mohamad Che Jusoh, head of the water department for greater Kuala Lumpur. “It solely depends on rainwater.”
Environmentalists complain that no one knows who is really in charge of long-term water management, in particular planning the network of dams and reservoirs needed to supply many major cities. Federal officials say water management is controlled by the states, and the states, in turn, blame the federal government for a lack of coordination.
The Malaysian public works minister, Samy Vellu, says he warned local officials late last year of the risk of a water shortage and says the crisis is in part due to poor planning. Local officials say the shortage took them by surprise.
“It’s easy to blame El Niño,” said Evelyne Hong, a scientist working at Sahabat Alam Malaysia, an environmental group. “But the major cause of the drought is the collapse of our water catchment system due to logging and highland development.
“If you have a lot of resorts and golf courses,” she added, “if you go into all of this commercial agriculture, you can disturb the watershed.”
William Ting, a neighbor of Mr. Shan’s, puts it in layman’s terms: “We never thought that in a tropical country where it rains almost every day we would have this problem.”
At a time when Malaysia is seeking more investment from overseas, the water shortage has also angered foreign companies. The Japanese Chamber of Commerce has sent a petition to the local water authority, and other local and foreign businesses that rely heavily on water also have lodged complaints.
When no water comes out of his tap for several days, Mr. Shan travels to a friend’s house in an area not so badly affected by the water crisis, fills up large plastic water jugs and carries them home in his car.
Other times he tries calling the public works department. If he is lucky, they send a water truck to the neighborhood. He and his neighbors rush out to fill as many buckets as they can.
Alan Loo, who lives in a condominium down the road, laughs as he tells how the management of his building started pumping water from the swimming pool up into the apartments when the water shortage began.
Mr. Shan is more blunt about the crisis. “We build the tallest tower, the biggest airport, but we can’t supply water to our own people,” he said. “The infrastructure has not kept pace with development.”