Water Resources and Water Quality Problems in Sabah

Subject: Sociology
Pages: 6
Words: 1773
Reading time:
7 min
Study level: PhD

Human Development in Rural Sabah

Sabah is the second largest state in Malaysia. It covers an area of about 74,000 sq kilometers (Sedia, 2012, p. 1). Sabah harbors about 3,117,405 people (as of 2010 statistics) (Thiessen, 2012). Statisticians consider it as the third most populous state in Malaysia. About 27% of Sabah’s inhabitants are foreigners (Oxford Business Group, 2012). Ethnically, Sabah is home to different population groups. In order of percentages, Sabah’s ethnic groups comprise of Kadazan-Dusun (17.82%), Bajau (14%), Brunei Malay (5.71%), Murut (3.22%), Bumiputra (20.56%), Chinese (9.11%), Indonesian (27.81%) (Lim, 2008). “Other” ethnic groups comprise the rest of Sabah’s ethnic bloc.

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Sabah’s economic history shows that the state was the second richest in Malaysia (Thiessen, 2012). However, as of 2010, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) ranked Sabah as the poorest state in Malaysia (Thiessen, 2012). UNDP also said the state’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) ranked among the lowest in the country (at a paltry 2.4%) (Lim, 2008). This minimal economic growth rate shows that Sabah has the lowest GDP in Malaysia. The state also has the highest number of squatters and people living in poverty (Sedia, 2012).

Researchers have advanced several reasons for the low human development index in Sabah, but this paper takes a special interest in understanding the influence of the state’s environmental needs on the human development index in the region. In detail, this paper explores water resources, water quality problems, and the supporting statistics that highlight water quality needs in Sabah. This report also pays close attention to the gender, economic, and political affiliations surrounding these needs. Finally, this report investigates previous programs that focused on improving water quality resources in Sabah, and if they achieved any significant development. Here, this paper focuses on the main actors, their interaction, and their interests in improving Sabah’s water quality needs. Complementarily, this paper also includes supporting statistics on health, education, infrastructure, and land rights in Sabah.

Water Situation in Sabah

Sabah’s water demand outstrips its supply (Cooke, 2006). The current demand for water in the eastern state is about 937 million liters per day (MLD), but Sedia (2012) projects that this supply falls short of the demand by about 23%. However, major towns have gained access to treated water (from about 39 water treatment plants dotted around the state). These treatment plants may produce about 762 million liters per day (Sedia, 2012). About 200,000 people consume this water. The government has connected most parts of urban Sabah to piped water (compared to the rural areas). Certainly, only about 61% of rural homes in Sabah have gained access to piped water, while 90% of the homes in Sabah’s urban areas have gained access to piped water (Sedia, 2012). When we compare Sabah’s population that has gained access to piped water, we can confirm a 20% shortfall of the number of people who have access to piped water, compared to the rest of Malaysia. Indeed, only about 75% of people in Sabah have gained access to piped water, while about 95% of Malaysia has gained access to piped water (Sedia, 2012).

Private companies undertake water production activities in most parts of rural Sabah. Comparatively, the water department of Sabah has a huge role to play in the supply of water because its main mandate is to distribute water throughout the state. The private companies therefore complement the activities of the government because they are mainly engaged in the production of water, while the government engages in the supply of water.

Challenges for Sustainable Water Distribution and Management

Sabah has experienced significant challenges in the distribution of water in rural Sabah. The main challenge for the distribution of water in Sabah focuses on the weak infrastructure for water distribution (especially in rural Sabah) and the lack of water sources in some areas. Another challenge that characterizes the distribution of water in Sabah stems from water leakages that amount to about 57% of the total water distribution in the region (Sedia, 2012). Comparatively, the national non-revenue water is only about 36%. Sedia (2012) says that the urban areas of Sabah have lower non-revenue water than the rural areas. Suburbs also account for the high non-revenue water in Sabah. In fact, Sedia (2012) says that non-revenue water may rise to about 60% in some suburbs. Another major challenge for the production and distribution of water in rural Sabah lies in the pollution of water sources from dumping and water contamination. This phenomenon has significantly affected the water production capacity in the state, thereby leading to higher production costs.

Land Use

Since Malaysia attained its independence in the late 1950s, the country has experienced a significant rise in its economic and social development (Hillier, 2010, p. 120). Mainly, the economic development of Malaysia has brought significant changes in land use policies. In turn, this phenomenon has led to significant changes in the country’s physical development. Notably, the rise in agricultural activities has led to the conversion of natural land into agricultural land. For instance, the inhabitants have converted most forests to oil palm and rubber plantations (King, 2013). The pressure from urban infrastructure development has also led to the decline of Malaysia’s forest cover. Unfortunately, this trend replicates in rural Sabah, albeit on a smaller scale. For example, Sabah’s forest cover declined by half, between 1973 and 1983 (Hillier, 2010). In fact, most of Sabah’s natural lands, which would have otherwise remained pivotal water towers, gave way to mining and logging activities.

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ECD (2001) believes that the main problem for Sabah’s land use policy has been the intense focus on agricultural activities, at the expense of the environment. For example, regional and federal authorities have consistently advocated for the advancement of broad-based commercial agriculture, at the expense of existing natural resources. This policy weakness has created a serious environmental problem because Sabah’s natural resources have been unable to sustain the region’s economic development (Mohd, 1997). Consequently, the depletion of strategic natural resources, like forests, has caused dwindling water resources (Kasmo, 2003).

Education and Health

Dalsgaard (2001) believes that environmental management and its potential ramifications on the environment largely depend on the success of education within the society. He specifically draws a close link between education and health because of his conviction that quality education leads to better health outcomes (Dalsgaard, 2001). A past study (done in Sabah) to assess people’s attitudes regarding their environment and water quality showed that the residents of rural Sabah could not drink water from rivers or streams because they believed these water sources were highly polluted (Dalsgaard, 2001). The residents were mainly concerned about the general quality of their water sources and the possible contamination of the rivers. However, a laboratory report, which evaluated the quality of the river water, showed a relatively low amount of coli bacteria and faecal coli that would significantly compromise the quality of Sabah’s water sources (Dalsgaard, 2001). This finding meant that Sabah’s water quality met the guidelines for water quality, as outlined by the World Health Organization (WHO). However, because of the insufficient supply of water in rural Sabah, residents sought alternative sources of water that had a relatively lower level of purity. Laboratory tests, which tried to evaluate the quality of the alternative sources of water, showed that there were significantly worrying levels of faecal coli, which compromised the quality of water (Dalsgaard, 2001).

There is scanty information regarding the specific health problems caused by poor water quality in rural Sabah. However, environmental experts have said that the poor water quality in rural Sabah has brought serious health problems to water consumers in the region (ICZM, 2012). This situation has caused community health concerns, including the spread of diarrhea, dysentery, malaria, and typhoid. In this regard, researchers say the main problem in rural Sabah is the insufficient supply of water (Dalsgaard, 2001). Consequently, from the use of alternative sources of water, residents of rural Sabah suffer inherent waterborne diseases (Dalsgaard, 2001).

Policy makers identify health education as a viable strategy for the mitigation of the above health problems, but gender inequalities in education prove to be a challenge to the quest for health education in rural Sabah. In detail, the unequal status of men and women in rural Sabah undermines health education in the region because women remain less empowered to understand the potential impact of poor water quality management and the mitigation of such a phenomenon (Dowling, 2009). Abdul-Wahab (2003) believes there is a critical need to implement an inclusive health education system that empowers the entire community to manage health challenges that arise from poor water management.

Water Quality Improvement Programs

Water supply improvement programs in rural Sabah have been a partnership between local authorities and non-governmental organizations. Most of these initiatives aim to improve the supply of quality water by educating the residents about better water economics. Other initiatives aim to improve the supply of water, through the construction of boreholes and other water facilities. Compared to the work of local authorities, non-governmental organizations have been on the forefront to alleviate Sabah’s water needs. The activities of the non-governmental organizations have been a collaborative effort with the Malaysian government because through their efforts, the partners have increased water supply in rural Sabah from about 56% to about 70%, over two years (Green Sabah, 2011, p. 1). The state government (through the Department of Environmental Protection) has also complemented the work of such organizations by undertaking periodic assessments to evaluate the impact of environmental degradation on Sabah’s water quality (Green Sabah, 2011). Some multinational organizations have also joined the move to protect Sabah’s water sources by reducing the impact of environmental activities on the water demand. One such organization is Nestle, which has educated farmers on better ways of water management (Nestle, 2012, p. 4).

The non-governmental organizations and corporate bodies do not work alone. There is a collective effort among all the stakeholders (including the community) to improve water management services in the state. So far, this collaboration has proved to be successful because there has been a significant gain in the reduction of natural resource depletion (Green Sabah, 2011). For example, Sabah’s water supply has significantly improved through this collaboration.

Multinational organizations that are involved in water quality management in Sabah mainly have an interest in the economic activities of the region. They therefore advocate for water quality management because they want to protect their economic activities. The government and non-governmental organizations participate in such activities because they have a social responsibility to do so. However, governments also have a political responsibility to protect the sustainability of water services within the state.

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