Monday, 29 July 2019

Letter to the Editor: Consider Alternatives To Groundwater Extraction


Minister of Water, Land and Natural Resources Dr. Xavier Jayakumar’s proposal to tap into Malaysia’s groundwater supply to meet growing water demand is baffling, considering that there are many other less costly and destructive means of meeting our country’s water needs. 

That the Minister reported of forests in Kedah catching fire due to drought is precisely what environmentalists and concerned citizens have been warning the authorities about for years – protect water catchment areas, gazette the Ulu Muda Forest Complex, and end deforestation, or we will face a water crisis. 

A fully-grown tree releases 1,000 litres of water vapour a day into the atmosphere. Thus logging leads to higher temperatures and a decline in rainfall due to the reduced ability of a cleared or decimated forest to absorb solar energy and release water vapour. The 2016 drought affecting the northern states of Peninsular Malaysia is directly linked to logging activities in the Ulu Muda forest complex, which affected climate and water cycle patterns, resulting in a massive decline in dam water levels and a postponement of the paddy planting season. 

Now that a water crisis is imminent, the Minister has made the alarming proposal to drain other sources of water, rather than manage the resource that best ensures a sustainable and consistent supply of water – our tropical rainforests, which act as vital water catchment zones. It is essential that we protect our remaining forests and maintain the health of our rivers, wetlands and water catchment areas to ensure that water resources are safe for us and can be sustained for future generations. 

Tapping into our groundwater supply while failing to protect water catchment areas, manage water demand, and end non-revenue water loss, is like withdrawing funds from an already overdrawn bank account. The sustained pumping of groundwater can lead to groundwater depletion and deterioration of water quality. As water levels in lakes and rivers are also linked to groundwater seepage, the excessive drawing of groundwater can result in a decline in the water levels of lakes and rivers and the loss of riparian vegetation and wildlife habitats. 

When groundwater is continually pumped out of the earth, it can result in land subsidence, namely, the collapse and sinking of soil. This can result in disasters such as the opening up of sinkholes and surface cavities such as in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, the tilting and cracking of buildings such as in Mexico City, and severe flooding such as in Bangkok. Studies have shown that land subsidence can continue for decades even after groundwater pumping has been stopped, as was observed in Arizona. 

The Minister should instead seriously consider water conservation measures while options are still available to us, before our water supply has dropped to crisis levels. 

We can learn from the example of the State of California, which faced a drought and water crisis in 2015. In April 2015, California Governor Jerry Brown ordered a 25% reduction in urban water use. Amazingly, within one month of the water reduction law being implemented, California's water usage went down by not merely 25% but 29%. Their water conservation measures included emergency adoption of building codes to conserve water, rebates for water-saving devices and landscape conversion and irrigation, water-efficient landscaping, imposing a fine for water wastage, local outdoor watering restrictions, statewide regulations requiring businesses to serve water to customers and launder linens and towels only when specifically requested, and hefty penalties for farmers who pump water from drought-stricken rivers. In a world where clean water is becoming increasingly scarce, it is important that we adopt the best and most cost-effective water conservation practices from around the world such as those implemented by the State of California. 

The solution to our country's water problems lies not in tapping into underground water reserves, the construction of an infinite number of dams, or in water rationing for domestic users, but in protecting vital watershed areas, repairing and maintaining the existing water supply infrastructure to minimise non-revenue water loss, and to promote and enforce more efficient water use. 

By the Minister’s own admission, non-revenue water loss in Malaysia is calculated to be at the rate of 5,929 million litres per day of treated water, which is sufficient to meet the water demand in both Selangor (3,316 million litres a day) and Johor (1,320 million litres a day). Surely the priority of the Minister should be replace leaky and damaged water infrastructure and end water theft, rather than to extract water from an ever-increasing number of natural sources? 

As for the argument that watershed conservation, water-saving measures, and the replacement of old pipes and water supply systems to plug non-revenue water loss will burden the rakyat, it is submitted that constructing yet more dams and groundwater extraction infrastructure will cost taxpayers even more. Given the choice between paying for a temporary solution to water shortage issues (i.e. dams and groundwater wells that will result in environmental destruction or will eventually dry up) and a more durable solution to protect water security (i.e. protection of watersheds, replacement of unsafe and leaking water supply pipes with safer and sturdier pipes, tiered pricing system to penalise only water wastage and heavy water use), I believe most taxpayers and consumers would make the rational decision to spend their money on the latter. 

A responsible government is one that makes decisions that will protect the safety, health, and food and water security of its citizens, and environmental and ecological integrity for generations to come, regardless of who will hold political power then. 


Friday, 5 July 2019

Letter to the Editor: It's Time To Get Serious About Single-Use Plastics


The purported plastic straw ban has been in effect in KL, Putrajaya, and Labuan since Jan 1, and in Selangor since July 1. Yet, apart from signs in eateries stating that straws are only available upon request, there has been no marked decline in the number of straws used and disposed of. In many eateries, straws are given by default, and when I asked the eatery staff why plastic straws continue to be inserted into beverages by default, the response is that customers often scold the eatery staff and demand straws, so inserting straws by default will save them the additional trip back to the drinks counter. 

This clearly shows that the purported straw ‘ban’ is not a ban but merely an advisory. It will have no actual impact on reducing plastic production, consumption or waste in Malaysia, and is merely a publicity exercise by governmental agencies to create the impression that they are doing something about the issue of plastic waste. There is no binding force to this advisory, no enforcement of the restriction against plastic straws, and no penalties or charges for those who wish to continue using plastic straws. It neither reduces the demand for plastic straws nor increases the demand for reusable alternatives such as steel or bamboo straws or compostable alternatives such as plant-based or paper straws, since no alternatives to plastic straws are offered at eateries, and no fee is charged for those who insist on being given straws. 

The risible advisory is also ineffective because plastic straws, as well as other single-use disposable plastic and styrofoam products, are still available for sale in retail outlets and supermarkets. Further, the purported ‘ban’ does not extend to cover hawker stalls, catering services, or even beverage shops such as the mushrooming bubble tea shops. A March 2019 survey by YouGov Omnibus reports that although 91% of Malaysians expressed the opinion that environmental conservation is important, 22% admitted to using plastic straws daily and 24% use plastic bags daily. From the survey, it is also clear that although the survey participants were aware of the need to reduce the use of single-use items such as plastic bags and straws, 44% believe that the onus is not on them but on the government to protect the environment. This survey, as well as the findings from outreach work done by various environmental NGOs in Malaysia, reveals that there is no lack of environmental awareness in Malaysia, only a lack of a sense of responsibility. Knowing this to be the predominant mindset amongst Malaysians, the government’s half-hearted attempt to limit the use of plastic straws is doomed to fail. 

However, recalcitrant and apathetic consumers are not even the main reason the ‘no plastic straw’ campaign is doomed to fail. This campaign, like the one against the free distribution of plastic bags, is and will remain ineffective because the focus is almost entirely on consumers and end users. The onus is on consumers to give up straws and single-use plastics and find their own alternatives. Compliance is higher among urban and educated populations, but for lower income individuals, any charge or ban on plastic bags and straws is seen only as another burden. 

In the battle against plastic waste, the government’s focus needs to shift from the end users to producers and businesses. There is currently insufficient pressure on plastics manufacturers to declare their plastic use, set plastic reduction targets, and redesign products and packaging to use less plastic. The existing governmental campaigns have no effect on plastics manufacturers’ production levels or profit margins. 

Plastics manufacturers love these types of ‘awareness’ and ‘voluntary reduction’ campaigns, because there is no obligation on them to reduce production. If a campaign or initiative fails, they can blame consumers for failure to comply with advisories, for littering, for being ignorant or recalcitrant, and for not recycling enough. Plastics manufacturers also love initiatives such as beach cleanups and recycling drives, because it creates the impression that they are doing something to address the issue of plastic waste without actually reducing production or changing the way they do business. More and more resources will then be poured into awareness and education campaigns and recycling drives in schools, when the crux of the problem is that our planet cannot cope with the amount of plastics already in the biosphere and the amount of plastics that will continue to be produced. 

The World Economic Forum reports that we use 20 times as much plastic as we did 50 years ago, and this will continue to rise with incomes and industrialisation. Worldwide, plastic production and use is growing at a 10% rate, but in the developing world and most Asian countries, it is growing much faster than that, and this is more than the existing waste management infrastructure can handle, leading to over 9 million tons of plastics dumped into the oceans each year. What the plastics industry does not want us to know is that recycling is not the solution, because most single-use plastics are never designed to be recycled. They are designed for low cost, light weight and convenience. As a result, even the best global efforts can only achieve a 10-20% recycling rate. Even when collected and separated for recycling, the low grade and low recyclability of these single-use plastic items means that they will be landfilled and burned. Existing recycling technology isn’t good enough, largely because of limitations in how plastics can be sorted by chemical composition and cleaned of additives. Most plastics that are recycled are shredded and reprocessed into lower-value plastics, such as polyester carpet fibre. Only 2% are recycled into products of the same quality. As long as decision-makers keep the focus on consumer behaviour, plastic manufacturers can continue carrying on business as usual and flooding the market with more and more low-grade, non-recyclable plastic packaging and products. 

The Pakatan Harapan government started off their term saying the right things and showing determination to end the scourge of plastic waste in Malaysia. Despite many promising-sounding announcements, there has been no concrete and measurable action taken to reduce plastic production and waste in Malaysia apart from yet more ‘awareness’ campaigns. For awareness and educational campaigns to work, there must be a corresponding ban on the production, import, sale and use of single-use plastic packaging, a higher focus on and incentive for switching to reusable and compostable alternatives, and a setting of reduction targets for manufacturers and businesses. 

Science journal reported in 2015 that Malaysia is among the top 8 highest offending ocean plastic polluters globally. Malaysia then signed the December 2017 UN Resolution on microplastics and marine litter, but has not really treated the issue with urgency or done anything with measurable outcomes to date. Consumer awareness campaigns and “request a straw only if you really need one” advisories are not measurable because no targets can be set or measured for such campaigns. Holding X number of roadshows and issuing X number of public service announcements cannot be translated into X tonnes of plastic waste reduced. 

One of the most effective ways to bring about an actual, measurable reduction in plastic waste within a definite timeline is to get manufacturers and businesses to set and meet reduction targets. Due to consumer and investor demands, many companies including Nestle and Pepsico are under pressure to disclose their annual plastic packaging use, set reduction goals, and transition to recyclable, reusable or compostable packaging and products. Nestle and Unilever have already pledged to make its plastic packaging fully reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025, Adidas and Dell are manufacturing products and packaging using recycled ocean plastics, and new start-ups are introducing everything from edible cutlery to sauce and seasoning sachets made of seaweed that will dissolve in water. Companies should not just be focusing on facilitating and encouraging recycling, but on reducing the amount of plastics used and designing their products and packaging out of recycled plastics or compostable materials in the first place. This is the kind of measurable reduction target we want to see in Malaysia. We should incentivise these kinds of innovation, by increased consumer support, or through governmental tax rebates and Research and Development funds. 

We have only a small window of time left to deal with plastic pollution and its harmful impact on biodiversity, climate, human health, and the economy. Malaysia cannot achieve pollution and waste reduction targets by waiting for consumers to do the right thing and by protecting manufacturers and the plastics industry. Karnataka State in India has banned several types of single-use plastic items and banned manufacturers from producing these products. Kenya has implemented a nationwide ban on plastics bags, which also covers distributors and producers. Vanuatu has outlawed plastic bags and many single-use plastic items, and is moving towards banning disposable diapers. Malaysia must move beyond advising customers to ask the waiter or go to the counter if they need a straw, and calling this measure a ‘ban’.