Rain harvesting in Malaysia

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Two young women huddle under an umbrella during a downpour in the Petaling Street area on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur (photo credit: Mark Fischer, flickr).Two young women huddle under an umbrella during a downpour in the Petaling Street area on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur (photo credit: Mark Fischer, flickr).

By Palau Shavin

Even as residents in the Klang Valley rejoice over the ending of water rationing, authorities are warning that consumers must be more prudent about water usage or risk having to endure more cuts in the future.

This is no empty threat. According to a recent newspaper report, Malaysians might have to brace for more than just water rationing and hot weather during the second half of the year when the El Nino weather pattern is predicted to hit the country.

El Nino (“The Little Boy”), is a periodic warming in the waters of the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean. The last El Nino to affect Malaysia took place during the 2009-2010 period, bringing with it a prolonged dry spell that lasted 10 months.

El Nino this time around will not just impact our water reserves, but also seriously affect rice and vegetable farmers, as well as the country’s oil palm industry. So serious is this threat that a special Cabinet Committee has been set up to look into it, headed by Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin.

According to the Malaysian Meteorological Department, the El Nino phenomenon will hit us just as the Southwest Monsoon is expected from late May to September, bringing with it its annual dry spell for the whole country.

The worry is that the water level at the reservoirs in Selangor, which have only started recovering, will start slipping into dangerous territory with this twin threat.

Though the Selangor government has said they will channel water from mining pools to the water reservoirs, a prolonged dry spell would render even this quick fix futile.

Glorious rain

Instead of throwing your hands up in despair and making plans to move to states with better water management, experts are suggesting doing something a bit more proactive – like harvesting rainwater.

Association of Water Energy Research president S. Piarapakaran said domestic consumers should harvest rainwater to help maintain dam levels.

Based on 2012 statistics, he said 61.7% of the treated water supply in Malaysia was used by domestic consumers.

“If consumers can harvest rainwater to partially supplement their usage of treated water, it could bring about a big impact in preventing water shortages,” he said, according to a news report.

Rainwater harvesting makes sense, as we get ample rainfall which just ends up being channelled down drains. If all households could practice collecting rainwater on a regular basis, the load on our water reserves will be considerably lessened.

Lest cost be a concern, rainwater harvesting, according to Piarapakaran, need not be expensive.

The simplest method is, of course, leaving pails outside the house, but channelling water down from the gutters into large containers would be simpler and more efficient.

“At a price of RM500, consumers can also enlist a plumber to install a good rainwater harvesting system at home,” he said. Of course, more sophisticated systems can cost anywhere between RM1,500 to RM10,000.

According to Piarapakaran, if 50% of domestic households used harvested rainwater for their needs, about 287 million litres per day (MLD) of treated water can be saved.

“This means that raw water retained in the dams will be more than 300 MLD. As a result, the water levels in the dams will be slightly higher and will be able to withstand a longer dry season,” he said.

In an interview with the Sun, Universiti Teknologi Mara’s Assoc Prof Dr Yee Chow Fah said harvesting rainwater would be the solution for use in non-consumption purposes such as washing cars, cleaning drains, watering plants and flushing toilets.

“This would help reduce demand for treated water which can be used for cooking and drinking,” she said.

Yee added that harvesting rainwater will be the best alternative in the long run to avoid water crisis, especially with increasing water demand by industries, agricultural sector and households.

What is rainwater harvesting?

The Rainwater Harvesting System (RHS) is the direct collection of rainwater from roofs and other purpose built catchments. This system, for both domestic dwellings and commercial buildings, has been implemented in countries such as United States, Japan, China, India, Germany and Australia to supplement the increasing water demand.

In Malaysia, RHS was introduced by the Housing and Local Government Ministry (now known as the Urban Wellbeing, Housing and Local Government Ministry) after the 1998 drought.

The initial phase of the rainwater harvesting policy in Malaysia was through the ministry’s 1999 “Guidelines for Installing a Rainwater Collection and Utilisation System”.

Under this guideline, local authorities will not approve building plans from developers who do not include a rainwater harvesting system for residential buildings.

The guidelines were made compulsory following approval by the National Council for Local Government in 2011.

The local government department’s building control division director Ahmad Redza Ghulan Rasool said the type of residential buildings affected are bungalows and semi-detached houses with a roof area equal to or exceeding 100sq m.

“Besides that, any detached buildings with a roof area equal to or exceeding 100sq m must also include the system in the building plan,” he added.

Ahmad Redza said failure to comply with any of the by-laws under the Uniform Building By-Laws (UBBL) 1984 would result in the building plan being rejected by the local authorities.

Some local authorities, such as the Petaling Jaya City Council (MBPJ), are taking things a step further. In order to encourage households to go green (i.e. using recyclable materials, installing energy saving devices and rainwater harvesting systems), the MBPJ offers up to 100% rebates in assessment rates to homeowners who comply.

The value of the rebate will be determined by six criteria such as energy, water, transport, compost, biodiversity and other green initiatives they may have.

The green rebate offer is open to owners of semi-D’s, terrace, bungalows, apartments, condominiums and flats.

The policy has had some success. According to reports, in 2011, only 50 homeowners applied, with 49 eligible to participate and 13 receiving a 100% rebate, while in 2012, 83 applied, 65 were eligible and 15 received a 100% assessment rebate. As of August 2013, 123 applied, 97 were eligible and 24 received a 100% rebate.

Even with such measures in place to help encourage residents to go green and harvest rainwater, it will still take a change in mindset to get most homeowners to comply. Part of the reason is that water tariffs are too low, as compared with say, electricity tariffs, despite both utilities being essential for our daily needs. As long as we treat water as just another cheap commodity, we may have to keep those water containers on standby more often than not.

EDM Photo Credit: Toni Protto (Flickr)

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