Geography, climate and population
Malaysia is situated in southeast Asia. It is composed of two regions: peninsular Malaysia in the west, lying between Thailand and Singapore, and the states of Sabah and Sarawak, located in the east of the island shared with Indonesian Borneo. The two regions are separated by the South China Sea. The total land area is 330 800 km2 (Table 1). Malaysia is a federal country, divided into 13 states and one federal territory (wilayah persekutuan), which includes the city of Kuala Lumpur (legislative capital), Labuan and Putrajaya (administrative capital).
In peninsular Malaysia, a mountainous spine known as Banjaran Titiwangsa separates the east of the peninsula from the west. About 61 percent of the peninsula is less than 100 m above sea level and the land is generally suitable for cultivation. The interior of Sabah is criss-crossed by a series of mountain ranges and hills, the most prominent is the Crocker range, with the highest point at Gunung Kinabalu (4 101 m). Sarawak is generally mountainous with the highest range forming the border with Indonesia.
Total cultivable area is an estimated 14.2 million ha, or 43 percent of the total land area. In 2009, about 7.6 million ha of the cultivable area, or 53 percent was cultivated. Permanent crops represented 76 percent of this cultivated area (5.8 million ha), while the remaining 24 percent (1.8 million ha) was under annual crops, mainly rice.
Malaysia lies entirely in the equatorial zone. The climate is governed by the northeast and southwest monsoons. The northeast monsoon from October to March is responsible for the heavy rains that hit the east coast of the peninsula and frequently cause widespread floods. It also causes the wettest season in Sabah and Sarawak. The southwest monsoon period occurs between May and September, and is a drier period for the whole country. The period between these two monsoons, April, is marked by heavy rainfall.
The average temperature throughout the year is very stable, 26 °C, and mean annual rainfall is 2 875 mm. Regional variations of temperature and rainfall are linked to altitude. For example the Cameron Highlands have a mean temperature of 18 °C and an annual rainfall of over 2 500 mm, compared to the mean temperature in Kuala Lumpur, which is 27 °C and 2 400 mm of annual rainfall. In general, Sabah and Sarawak experience more rainfall (3 000-4 000 mm/year) than the peninsula. The humidity is high (80 percent) as a result of the high evaporation rate. About 60 percent of the rain falls in the months of November and January.
The population in 2009 was an estimated 28 million, 29 percent lived in rural areas (Table 1). The population is concentrated along the west coast of peninsular Malaysia and in the capital Kuala Lumpur. Average population density is 84 inhabitants/km2. The annual demographic growth for 1999-2009 was around 2.0 percent.
In 2008, there was almost 100 percent access to improved drinking water sources; 100 and 99 percent for the urban and rural population respectively.
Economy, agriculture and food security
The total population economically active in agriculture in 2009 was an estimated 1.64 million, amounting to 13 percent of the economically active population, of which 21 percent were women. Gross domestic product in 2009 was US$193 093 million and agriculture accounted for 10 percent of GDP, compared with 15 percent in 1990.
The agriculture sector is divided into large-scale plantations concentrating on three crops – rubber, oil palm and cocoa and most of the farming population are smallholders. In 1995, palm oil, rubber and saw logs accounted for more than 58 percent of total agricultural exports.
Peninsular Malaysia is drained by a dense network of rivers and streams (there are about 150 major river basins), the longest being the Pahang river, which follows a course of 434 km before reaching the South China Sea. It drains a catchment area of 29 000 km2. Other major rivers that drain into the South China Sea are the Kelantan, Terengganu, Dungun, Endau and Sedili rivers. Major river basins in the east of Malaysia tend to be larger than those in peninsular Malaysia. Malaysia’s longest river is the Rajang (563 km) in Sarawak.
Out of an annual rainfall volume of 950 km3, 39 percent or 370 km3 are lost to evapotranspiration. The total annual surface runoff is 566 km3 and about 64 km³ contribute to groundwater recharge. However, about 78 percent of the groundwater flow, or 50 km3, returns to the rivers and is therefore not considered an additional resource (overlap). The total internal water resources of Malaysia are thus an estimated 580 km3/year.
The Kolok river originates in Thailand and then forms the border between Thailand and Malaysia. This river is very short with a total length of just over 100 km and, while no information on flows is available, the amount is negligible compared to the total internal renewable water resources (IRWR).
Major floods occurred in 1967, 1971, 1973 and 1983. Some 29 000 km2 are considered as flood-prone areas, affecting about 2.7 million people. The average annual economic damage caused by floods was evaluated as US$40 million in 1980.
On the west coast of peninsular Malaysia, the low gradient has resulted in large extensions of tidal flats and swamps. One of the swamp lakes is Lake Bera in Pahang state, with an area of 61.5 km2.
In 1999, Malaysia had a total of 56 dams, of which 32 were more than 15 m high. In 2009, total dam capacity is an estimated 23.72 km3.
In 2009, the Department of Irrigation and Drainage, at the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, managed 16 dams having a total capacity of 460 million m3. Located in various states, these dams fulfill the department’s role in providing adequate irrigation water, flood mitigation and silt retention. Beris dam (2004) has the largest capacity with 122 million m3, followed by Bukit Merah dam (1906) with 75 million m3, Pontian dam (1985) and Timah Tasoh dam (1992) each with a capacity of 40 million m3, Anak Endau dam (1985) with 38 million m3 and Batu dam (1985) with 37 million m3. More dams are scheduled for construction to meet the ever increasing demands and social expectations of the public.
The Klang Gates dam, with a capacity of 25 million m3, was completed in 1958 and is a major supplier of drinking water to residents of the Klang valley, Kuala Lumpur.
In 1995, the gross theoretical hydropower potential of peninsular Malaysia was 123 000 GWh/year, and that of Sabah and Sarawak together 107 000 GWh/year. In 1995, total hydropower generation was about 5 800 GWh, or 30 percent of all power production in Malaysia. The most important hydropower dams are Chenderoh dam, the oldest hydropower dam in Malaysia (1920) with a capacity of 95 million m3, Batang Ai dam (1985) with a capacity of 750 million m3, Pergau dam (2000), Sultan Mahmud dam (1972), Temenggor dam (1972) with a capacity of 6 050 million m3 and Tenom Pangi dam (1984).
In 1995 total produced wastewater was 2.69 km3 and treated wastewater was an estimated 0.40 km3. In 1990 desalinated water produced accounted for 4.3 million m3 (Table 2).
International water issues
Two water agreements signed between Malaysia and Singapore in 1961 and 1962 are in force up to 2011 and 2061 respectively. The Tebrau and Skudai Water Agreement was signed in 1961, while the Johor River Water Agreement was signed in 1962. The 1961 agreement allows Singapore to draw up to 0.40 million m3 (86 million gallons) of water daily from the Pontian and Gunung Pulai reservoirs as well as the Tebrau and Skudai rivers, while the 1962 agreement allows up to 1.15 million m3 (250 million gallons – 1 gallon = 4.5 litres) of water per day to be drawn from the Johor river. In total, these agreements allow Singapore to draw up to 1.55 million m3 (250.4 million gallons) per day.
Both agreements are honoured under the 1965 Separation Act between Singapore and Malaysia, and lodged with the United Nations. Singapore pays Malaysia (the Johor Government) 3 cents (RM 0.03) for every 1 000 gallons drawn from these rivers. In turn, the Johor Government pays Singapore 50 cents (RM 0.50) for every 1 000 gallons of treated water. Both also contain a provision that allows for a review of water prices in 25 years, and arbitration if there is a disagreement. Prices can be revised in line with the purchasing power of money, labour costs, and cost of power and materials used to supply water. Malaysia did not revise water rates in 1986 and 1987 because of financial considerations. If the Johor government raises the price of raw water, it would concurrently have to pay dearer prices for the treated water it buys from Singapore (Lee Poh Onn, 2003).
In June 1988, a Memorandum of Understanding on water and gas was signed between Singapore and Malaysia that gave Singapore the right to construct more reservoirs and to draw more than what has been presently set for an additional one hundred years.
In 2005, total water withdrawal was an estimated 13.210 km3, of which 4.520 km3 (34 percent) for agriculture, 3.902 km3 (30 percent) for municipalities and 4.788 km3 (36 percent) for industries (Table 3 and Figure 1).
Surface water is readily available throughout the year and is abstracted mainly for irrigation and domestic uses. The groundwater potential is limited to some pockets of the coastal region and is generally exploited by rural people to supplement their piped water supply. In 1995, surface water represented approximately 97 percent of the total water withdrawal, while groundwater represented 3 percent (Figure 2). About 60-65 percent of groundwater used is for municipal purposes, 5 percent for irrigation and 30-35 percent for industry.
In 1995, about one third of the water withdrawal of the municipal and industrial sectors is lost in the distribution system owing to several factors such as pipe leakage, under-metering, and other unaccounted water losses. Water supply is undertaken by government agencies and privatized water companies.
Irrigation and drainage
Evolution of irrigation development
The irrigation potential is about 413 700 ha. Irrigation development dates back to the end of the eighteenth century. The Kerian irrigation schemes were the first large schemes to be constructed, in 1892. Since the formation of the Department of Irrigation and Drainage in 1932, irrigated areas for rice cultivation have progressively increased. By 1960, about 200 000 ha had been developed, the emphasis then being on supplementing rainfall for single crop cultivation.
During the 1960s and early 1970s, the introduction of double cropping of rice cultivation required the development of adequate water resources for the second cropping season. During the 1980s, the priority for irrigation took on a new dimension with the need to rationalize rice cultivation and increase its productivity. The Government developed a policy to concentrate efforts on irrigation development in eight large irrigation areas, designated as granary areas and totalling 210 552 ha. They are the irrigated areas of Kada, Seberang Muda Perai, Trans Perak, Northwest Selangor, Kerian-Sungai Manik, Besut and Kemasin-Semarak.
In 1994, Malaysia had over 932 irrigation schemes covering 340 717 ha, comprising the above eight granary schemes (210 552 ha), 74 mini-granary schemes (29 507 ha) and 850 non-granary schemes (100 658 ha) (Table 4 and Figure 3). The non-granary schemes are scattered throughout the country and their size varies between 50 and 200 ha. In 1994, 92 percent of the full control equipped area was irrigated by surface water and 8 percent by groundwater (Figure 4). Surface irrigation and localized irrigation accounted for 340 600 ha and 117 ha respectively (Figure 5).
In addition, there are 21 970 ha, which are inundation and control drainage schemes. The total irrigation area was an estimated 362 687 ha in 1994.
In the major irrigation schemes, flooding or basin irrigation is practiced on rice fields, and the water depth is controlled individually by farmers. Major irrigation schemes are designed with proper farm roads to cater for farm mechanization especially for ploughing and harvesting.
Role of irrigation in agricultural production, the economy and society
Irrigation is predominately for rice cultivation and, to a minor extent, for vegetables and cash crops. Rice cultivation is mostly carried out by individual farmers working on small plots of about 1-1.5 ha. In 2006, the total harvested irrigated cropped area on the full control irrigation area was about 382 000, of which 95 percent was rice, 3.1 percent sugarcane, 1.6 percent vegetables and 0.3 percent groundnuts (Table 4 and Figure 6).
In 1999 irrigation efficiency was around 35-45 percent with a water productivity index for rice of about 0.2 kg/m³. The average yield for irrigated rice was 4 tonnes/ha in 1995.
Status and evolution of drainage systems
In 1994, the total drained area was 940 600 ha. About 600 000 ha were drained for oil palm cultivation, using public funding for smallholders. Most of the irrigation schemes (340 600 ha) are provided with separate drainage facilities.
Water management, policies and legislation related to water use in agriculture
The responsibility for water resources planning and development is shared by various government agencies. Malaysia has no single water resources authority, which might provide an overall coordinated approach to planning and integrated river management.
The Ministry of Agriculture and Agro-based Industries (MoA) has the mandate to transform the agriculture and agro-based industry into a modern, dynamic and competitive sector, to position Malaysia as a major world food exporter and to develop the agriculture sector as the country’s engine of growth.
MoA’s Division of Irrigation and Agricultural Drainage (BPSP) is responsible for the planning, implemention and operation of irrigation, drainage and flood control projects throughout the country, notably:
The Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (MoNRE), which has been assigned the task of formulating, managing and enforcing policies, strategies and programmes related to natural resources. There is no dedicated department within the ministry that could provide the full scope of technical support to carry out this function with regard to water (Hanapi, 2011).
The Department of Irrigation and Drainage at the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment is in charge of flood mitigation, river and coastal management, hydrology, urban drainage and dams.
In the water supply sector, the Public Works Department (PWD), under the Ministry of Public Works, is responsible for the planning, implementation and operation of urban water supply projects. However, in line with the Government’s privatization policy, many water supply projects have been taken over by water supply companies or privatized.
The Ministry of Health (MOH) provides untreated but drinkable water to rural communities not served by the local water authorities. The MOH also monitors water quality at water treatment plant intakes as well as the quality of water within the distribution system for compliance with national drinking water standards.
The control of water pollution is the responsibility of the Department of Environment (DOE), which is empowered to enforce compliance with effluent standards for point sources of pollution. The Ministry of Housing and Local Government is responsible for compliance with regulations and standards on sewerage works which have been privatized to a national sewerage company.
The Muda Agricultural Development Authority (MADA) is a semi-autonomous agency, which came into effect in 1969 and was formally established in 1970. Statutorily responsible to the MoA, and under the budgetary control of the Ministry of Finance, MADA is responsible for operating and improving the irrigation system and its area and supplying extension, credit and other services to farmers. It also has been innovative and active in the planning of improvements, project socio-economic evaluation, and so on.
Malaysia has recently decided to improve its strategic target of rice self-sufficiency to 100 percent. This has important implications for water allocation to agriculture. At the same time, the Division of Irrigation and Agricultural Drainage (BPSP) of the MoA has received significant budgets to support this new policy and, therefore, has an opportunity to address problems related to managing demand or improving efficiency by modernizing the systems. One approach suggested by BPSP is to develop new irrigation schemes (as commercial plantations) in areas with low population pressure, such as eastern Malaysia.
As far as existing systems are concerned, the hotspot for water allocation is the MADA irrigation system, which produces 40 percent of national rice production. MADA has been a priority national project since the First National Plan. As the largest national granary area, concentrating over 40 percent of rice production, it has national strategic significance. The main objective of water resources development in the northern basins has been to supply water to MADA. Increasingly the Muda and Kedah basins have been interconnected and now serve three states as well as other water users.
Kedah State is an agricultural state and thus poor almost by definition. With the announced creation of a ‘State Water Resource Authority’ in Kedah State in 2010, tensions around the allocation of water to MADA are bound to increase between state and federal level on the economic objectives of water resources management (supply to industries, potential hydropower generation, water supply). In spite of new plans for further water resources management, water supply to irrigation and the performance of MADA are bound to come under closer scrutiny at national and local levels.
In 1999, it was estimated that fees collected from farmers cover only 10-12 percent of the actual operational cost. The Government does not seek full cost recovery because the farming community is considered a low-income group. A total of US$917 million have been spent on irrigation development by the Government during the period 1970-2000.
Policies and legislation
In line with the Third National Agricultural Policy, as well as the vision of the country’s leadership, an objective of the Ninth Malaysia Plan (2006-2010) is to activate the industrialization of the country’s agriculture sector. This would reactivate the development of the agricultural sector and thus transform it into one of the nation’s engines of growth. The plan supports agricultural irrigation projects.
Although, either directly or indirectly, much legislation touches on water resources, most of the existing laws are considered outdated. The Water Act of 1920 is inadequate for dealing with the current complex issues related to water abstraction, pollution and river basin management.
Environment and health
The main sources of organic water pollution are domestic and industrial sewage, effluent from palm oil mills, rubber factories and animal husbandry. Mining operations, housing and road development, logging and clearing of forests are major causes of high concentration of suspended sediments in the rivers. In several urban and industrial areas, organic pollution of water has resulted in environmental problems and has adversely affected aquatic life. Besides organic waste, rivers remain a convenient means of solid waste disposal. A major portion of household refuse, which is not collected, burned or buried, finds its way into drains and rivers. In the Klang valley, an estimated 80 tonnes of waste ends up in the river system every day. River water quality and pollution control need to be addressed urgently since 98 percent of the total water used originates from rivers. Almost all the investments in water-related infrastructure depend on reasonable river water quality (Le Huu Ti and Facon, 2001).
Prospects for agricultural water management
The Malaysia vision for water in the twenty-first century is to conserve and manage its water resources to ensure adequate and safe water for all (including the environment). The key objectives of the vision are as follows:
The set of initiatives that need to take place to achieve the vision’s key objectives is evaluated based on the four challenges of creating a better water future, which are: (i) managing the water resources efficiently and effectively (addressing both quantity and quality aspects), (ii) moving towards integrated river basin management, (iii) translating awareness into political will and capacity and (iv) moving towards adequate, safe and affordable water services, as will befit a developed-nation status by 2020.
The actions for a better water future are also determined based on milestones and targets and they have to do with: (a) institutional and legal aspects; (b) participatory approach in the decision-making process; (c) development of innovative technologies; (d) efficient use of water resources; (e) extensive research and development; (f) shift from water-supply to water-demand management; (g) establishment of river basin organizations; (h) integrated water resources management; (i) promotion of water awareness and water education; (j) promotion of networking in the water sector; (k) good databases and dissemination; (l) resource assessment, monitoring and protection; (m) water ecosystems protection; (n) flood and drought contingency plans; (o) water-quality management; (p) frequent dialogues with the stakeholders; (q) a Water Sector Master Plan and (r) formation of a National Water Institute (Le Huu Ti and Facon, 2001).
Main sources of information
CIA (Central Intelligence Agency). 2009. The World Factbook: Malaysia.
FAO. 1999. Irrigation in Asia in figures. FAO Water Report No. 18. Rome.
FAO. 2009. Back to office report Project: GCP/RAS/241/JPN. Thierry Facon, 3/11/2009.
Hanapi bin Mohamad Noor. 2011. Review of the National Water Resources study (2000-2050): Finding, outputs and recommendations. Presentation made at the Asia Pacific Regional Water Conference & Exhibition 2011, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 15-17 March 2011.
Le Huu, Ti and Facon, T. 2001. Malaysia´s Water Vision: The Way Forward. Page 25-41 From Vision to Action. A synthesis of experiences in southeast Asia. The FAO-ESCAP Pilot Project on National Water Visions.
Lee Poh Onn. 2003. The Water Issue Between Singapore and Malaysia: No Solution in Sight?. Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS).
MoA (Ministry of Agriculture and Agro-based Industry]). 2009. Official web site.