The Green Equilibrium: El Nino – are we ready?

WORLD Meteorological Organisation (WMO) in early May has release statement that there is 60% chance for transition from ENSO-neutral to El Nino between May and July this year. This will increase to 70% between June and August. An 80% chance is placed between July and September this year. WMO also noted that the recent La Nina is unusually long.

Ironically, there had been news reports quoting some government officials stating that the respective states or sectors are prepared to face El Nino that will last until August. However, what we are facing now is Southwest Monsoon. El Nino is just being predicted to form according to WMO. It is also surprising that some states are already facing low dam levels when La Nina (phenomenon that brings more rainfall) just ended first quarter of this year. Dams are designed to withstand dry season and if it does not, you have to go back to the drawing board.

Every storage facility has its own operating manual and most importantly a functioning catchment area. Logging and developments have increase water stress situation by impacting local climate and natural water replenishing ability. It is vital that federal and state agencies remodel raw water ability to ensure we can pass lesser rainfall risk brought by El Nino.

The relevant agencies have to identify current catchment conditions especially if it has been changing over the past years. Inability of raw water storage facility to follow normal operating level by under performing should be investigated. Each storage facility and its corresponding monsoon season must be remodelled with change in catchment areas as well as different reduced rainfall pattern to project El Nino impacts. By carrying out this, we will be able to determine the worst case scenario and prepare to mitigate it.

According to the Department of Statistics Malaysia, in 2015, about 14,586 million cubic metres (mcm) of surface water and 92 mcm of groundwater was abstracted for all use.

Based on 2021 water services industry data for Peninsular Malaysia and Labuan by Suruhanjaya Perkhidmatan Air Negara (SPAN), 5,761 mcm raw water is abstracted for water treatment and supply. The overall operation records 33.4% of non-revenue water (NRW) where Kedah, Kelantan, Pahang and Perlis are having NRW about 50% or higher. NRW is treated water that is lost in distribution system. In addition to that, Kedah, Kelantan and Perlis have no treated water reserve margin in 2021. Reserve margin is additional treated water capacity after meeting demand. Higher reserve margin helps recovery of water supply and meeting emergency requirement during prolong dry season. The same report also records 65.1% treated water is used by domestic consumers. Thus, an aggregate parameter developed from all variables is needed to prepare to face El Nino.

Raw water level in storage facilities that supply for irrigation and water treatment plants must be tagged with colour coding system to identify reduced raw water level and its corresponding supply reduction or cessation of supply requirements. Before this is done, state water agencies and SPAN must identify the total raw water and treated water used by different category of sectors respectively. These sectors will have to be categorised into different level of critical and non-critical operations.

Awer has suggested normal water level as green and the critical level at brown. Yellow, orange and red are the transition from normal operation to critical operation of raw water storage facilities. State water agencies must develop corresponding response to the transition and identify sectors that will face reduction and cessation of raw water supply according to the colour code. Similarly, SPAN has to carry out reduction and cessation of treated water supply to correspond to raw water colour coding situation by invoking Section 54 or Section 56 of Water Services Industry Act 2006 (WSIA).

By doing this, simple and clear communication can be carried out throughout Malaysia to ease the crisis management. Sabah and Sarawak state governments will have to use its state law and regulations to implement treated water supply reduction and cessation to streamline with colour coding mechanism as it is not part of WSIA model.

Past experiences have shown that messy communication will cause panic consumption. During prolonged dry season, peak demand period will tend to be longer. However, if panic consumption is induced due to in silo implementation, the peak demand period will prolong and cause more discomfort during rationing period.

When unpredictability is high, it is important that Malaysia is prepared to face any risk. A professional management of impending crisis is via mitigated measures. Failing to plan is planning to fail.

This article is contributed by Piarapakaran S, president of the Association of Water and Energy Research Malaysia (Awer), a non-government organisation involved in research and development in the fields of water, energy and environment.