Malaysian States In Water Stand-off

"Rice Bowl" vs."Industry" Competition

17 Apr 2021 by The Water Diplomat
ALOR SETAR, Malaysia

Neighbouring Malaysian states of Penang and Kedah are embroiled in a dispute over rights to water from the Sungai Muda River.

The upstream state of Kedah is demanding that its downstream neighbour Penang, a highly industrialised engine of the Malaysian economy, pay for raw water from the river, and has also announced plans for a water retention plan that could potentially “throttle” flows to Penang.

The first minister of Kedah, Muhammad Sanusi Md Nor insists the planned riverside water catchment system known as TAPS is intended to stabilise the river’s water level during the dry season and ensure water supplies for the people of Kedah, according to local media reports. Kedah, often referred to as Malaysia’s “rice bowl”, is highly dependent upon agriculture.

Speaking to local media outlets, Sanusi said that Kedah’s planned TAPS system involves 14 riverside retention tanks, each one 20 to 30 metres deep and up to one kilometre wide.

Penang’s first minister Chow Kon Yeow has called for Malaysia’s federal government to intervene, and is threatening legal action against Kedah in the event that Penang’s water supply is threatened. In light of the development, Chow also said that the government is looking into alternative water technologies “to mitigate the risks of potential 'mishaps' involving Sungai Muda that may affect water supply services in Penang”, Chow said in a statement, warning that this may incur higher water supply costs and tariffs in the future.

About 80 Percent of Penang’s water comes from the part of the river that flows through Penang.

Meanwhile, a coalition of 13 NGOs urged this month that the two sides seek mediation to resolve the issue and come together to protect the Greater Ulu Muda forest in Kedah, which is the water catchment system for the Sungai Muda. In an open letter to the squabbling parties, the coalition said the forest is under serious threat from land clearing, logging and mining.

“While Penang may have the legal rights to extract raw water from its side of Sungai Muda, it is to its long-term benefit to help Kedah to protect the Greater Ulu Muda forest,” said the letter.

Despite being the second smallest of Malaysia’s 13 states by land mass, Penang has the country’s third-highest GDP per capita, 90% of which is driven by manufacturing and service sectors, according to information published in 2020 by the Penang Institute. Kedah’s GDP per capita, on the other hand, is the second-lowest in the country and less than half that of Penang.

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Kedah [state] will take the raw water matter to court if negotiations come to a deadlock, Menteri Besar Muhammad Sanusi Nor said. “We will negotiate with Penang [state] now, as we ...