July 16, 2024

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Dr Josilva FI

Malaysia’s perspective on water resource sharing: Leveraging water for peace

Water, often praised as the elixir of life, has an unrivalled ability to transcend borders and promote peace between nations. From the longest river, the Rajang in Sarawak, to the meandering Klang River in Selangor, these waterways serve as lifelines that connect people and cultures across the country. Malaysia has recognised the value of water as a shared resource and has adopted a holistic approach to water management that emphasises cooperation, environmental protection and equity. Against a backdrop of global water threats and geopolitical tensions, Malaysia’s journey is a beacon that offers invaluable lessons in utilising water as a catalyst for peace and prosperity.

Located in the heart of Southeast Asia, Malaysia has an abundance of rivers, lakes and groundwater reserves. Malaysia is blessed with a tropical climate that averages 3000mm of rainfall per year, making it one of the wettest regions in the world. Rapid urbanisation and industrialisation are putting pressure on freshwater sources, exacerbating the risk of scarcity and pollution. In response, Malaysia has adopted a multi-pronged approach to water management based on the principles of sustainability, equity and cooperation.

However, access to water in Malaysia goes beyond mere resource management and is an issue of social justice and equity. Rural communities, especially indigenous groups, often struggle to access clean water and sanitation facilities. The low water tariff does not encourage water conservation and per capita consumption is high. Water quality is deteriorating due to pollution from sewage, industrial waste and agricultural runoff; the problem is also exacerbated by deforestation. Tragic incidents such as the pollution of the Kim Kim River in Pasir Gudang, Johor in 2019 emphasise the urgency to tackle illegal dumping and protect rivers. In addition, the unpredictable effects of natural disasters and changing rainfall patterns due to climate change further exacerbate the availability and quality of water. Water scarcity and unequal access can also be a source of tension, as the current dispute between Kedah and Penang over the water rights of Sungai Muda shows the complexity of sharing water resources, especially in regions where water is scarce. As competition for this finite resource increases, disputes can erupt and jeopardise regional stability.

The understanding of water as a shared heritage to be protected and nurtured for future generations, and not just as a resource, is fundamental to Malaysia’s approach to water management. To ensure continuous access to clean water for its growing population, the country has invested in the construction of infrastructure such as dams, reservoirs and treatment facilities. In addition, Malaysia has introduced state-of-the-art technologies and conservation strategies to improve the resilience and efficiency of its water sector to ensure access to clean and safe water for all Malaysians.

Groundwater, which is often overshadowed by surface water, plays a critical role in Malaysia’s quest for water security. Groundwater utilisation in Malaysia is less than 3%, despite the country having over 5,000 billion cubic metres of groundwater reserves and a processing capacity of 64 billion cubic metres annually. In comparison, countries such as Denmark, Thailand and China utilise groundwater to a much greater extent. Kelantan, Terengganu, Pahang, Sabah and Sarawak currently rely on groundwater as a source of drinking water, which emphasises the potential of groundwater to improve water security in Malaysia.

At the global level, the United Nations (UN) has recognised water as an important factor for peace and sustainable development. World leaders adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015. These goals include supporting integrated water management, ensuring access to clean water and sanitation for all and improving cooperation on transboundary water issues.

In addition to its initiatives, Malaysia is committed to promoting regional cooperation and communication to address common water-related issues. Active involvement in regional organisations such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) underscores Malaysia’s commitment to water cooperation beyond borders. Numerous transboundary rivers, such as the Sungai Golok and Sungai Muar, are lifelines for millions of people, providing drinking water, irrigation and hydropower. The effective management of these resources requires dialogue and joint efforts between Malaysia and its neighbours Thailand and Singapore. Despite these efforts, challenges remain. Here are some key areas where Malaysia can leverage water for peace:

  • Strengthening Transboundary Water Cooperation: Malaysia actively participates in regional water dialogues with neighbouring countries. The exchange of data, the implementation of joint water management projects and the establishment of conflict resolution mechanisms are crucial for peaceful water sharing.
  • Investing in Water Infrastructure: Modernising and expanding water treatment plants, developing rainwater harvesting systems and promoting water-saving technologies are essential to ensure long-term water security.
  • Promoting Water Conservation: Public awareness campaigns, incentivising water-efficient practices in agriculture and industry and promoting a culture of water conservation among citizens are crucial.

To summarise, Malaysia’s strategy for sustainable resource management is embodied in the idea of using water for peace. This fight for a water-secure future is not a solitary journey. By working with neighbouring countries, sharing knowledge and adopting best practices, Malaysia can set an example for the region and prove that water can indeed be a powerful tool for peace. Let us harness the transformative power of water to create a world where peace flows as freely as the rivers and the challenges of the twenty-first century are met with wisdom and unity.



Dr. Josilva M Muniandy is a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Water and Environmental Engineering, Faculty of Civil Engineering, Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM). His speciality is in resource sustainability and environmental hydrology, with a specific emphasis on Eco-Hydrology. This field combines ecological and hydrological processes to better understand the relationship between water and ecosystems. Dr. Muniandy’s study is anticipated to focus on how human activities and natural events affect water supplies and ecosystems, with the goal of developing long-term solutions.

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