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News Splash: The rippling effects of water pollution

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by mydclimate

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Written by Farhana Shukor and Zhee Qi
Introduction

Photo by Tim Mossholder

Water is a natural resource that is vital to life and any threat to it would be detrimental towards the well-being of earth’s inhabitants. Water and sanitation were formally acknowledged as human rights by the United Nations General Assembly in 2010 and 2015, respectively. Further, international human rights laws have also imposed obligations on countries to provide access to safe drinking water and sanitation.

In August 2020, the Malaysia Prime Minister’s Office launched a research study — the Water Sector Transformation 2040 (WST 2040) — to investigate water sector reform, aiming to transform it into a “dynamic growth engine for the country”.

The Climate Change Impact and Adaptation task force of WST 2040 engaged members of the Malaysian Youth Delegation (MYD) to develop a youth survey. This survey aimed to collate the youth’s opinions and their policy recommendations on climate change and the local water sector. It was open for responses from the 26th February 2021 till the 4th April 2021, and successfully garnered responses from 168 youths. The definition of youths here was people aged between 18-35 which was based on the definition provided by the Children and Youth constituency of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (YOUNGO).

The survey findings were crystallised as MYD’s Water & Climate Change Youth Survey Report. This report provides a good starting point to determine the youth’s perception and understanding of climate change and the consequential risks from their lack of understanding, which can be used to develop solutions to sufficiently address these issues. In conjunction with that, an article on the report has been penned and published by MYD on our website.

While the previous article touched on governmental roles, this article aims to discuss matters at stake for water security and the power corporations hold in shifting the paradigm. In line with the survey findings and in light of rampant water pollution issues, this is an open letter to one of our stakeholders — corporations. Corporations have a big role in tackling the climate crisis because by large, they produce a substantial amount of emissions. The 3rd Biennial Update Report submitted by Malaysia to the United Nations Framework Conference on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 2016 indicates that greenhouse gas emissions are largely attributed to the energy (77.9%) and waste (8.44%) sectors.

Risk by definition is uncertainty, but the lens for which we perceive the uncertainty can either identify the problem or the solution. In this article, we will address both perspectives and produce a Strength, Weakness, Opportunities and Threats (SWOT) analysis focusing on private corporations and their roles in this space, based on the report findings and additional resources.

 

Strengths

Beginning on a hopeful note, it was found that the majority of the participants had access to water and sanitation.

Most participants confirmed that their municipalities have some initiatives in place to tackle existing water hazards such as providing temporary water supply alternatives and improving the supply infrastructure (refer to Figure 1).

[Figure 1: Municipal action against water related hazards experienced]

 

Notably, the findings reflected that 37-50% of participants were satisfied with the efforts of the private sector towards water related tasks. In relation to that, 53-64% of participants believe that the private sector should be “very responsible” for future actions such as ensuring sustainable consumption of water and planning for climate change impacts.

 

[Figure 2: Participants’ awareness of climate change risks]

Figure 2 provides an overview on the participants’ awareness of climate change risks. Based on this, it appears that there is generally a good awareness and understanding of climate change risks amongst youth. The caveat here is that the survey responses may largely be from youths who are part of environmental circles, hence the findings may not reflect the opinions of the wider Malaysian youth demographic. However, this assumption cannot be verified as there was no identifying data to indicate the field of study or work of all survey respondents’.

 

Weaknesses

A majority of participants indicated they only have a single water source. This is a precarious scenario as any of the water hazards experienced may potentially disrupt water access for a significant period of time.

[Figure 3: Distribution of water related hazards experienced by participants]

 

In relation to that, it is also important to note that the greatest water hazard faced by participants is water rationing or cuts, with 64% of participants experiencing this hazard. Of this group, only 67% indicated that they were provided with a temporary alternative water source.  This hazard is also known to be linked to the frequent water pollution incidents that occurred in the state of Selangor and were caused by private corporations’ mismanagement of waste.

While most participants confirmed that their municipalities have some mitigation efforts in place, it is evident that those initiatives are merely short term coping strategies. There is a huge gap that needs to be filled to ensure water security. Based on the results from the second component of the survey, held on a conversation tool known as Pol.is, it was emphasised that there is a need for cooperation between public, private and civil sectors to tackle these issues. The responses indicated that corporations too have a vital role to play in mitigating current water-related hazards (refer to Figure 4).

 

[Figure 4: Participant’s perception of stakeholder responsibility in mitigating water-related hazards]

 

Threats

An obvious threat to water security is water pollution. However, it is important to note that water pollution is ultimately a result of human activities such as the disposal of pollutants into waterways. Most water pollution occurrences can be attributed to corporate activities which are made worse by the lack or absence of environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) considerations. Threats like water pollution can disrupt some business operations which can impact business outcomes and interests.

As the community becomes more environmentally conscious, there exists a risk of economic and reputational losses when companies act negligently towards environmental protection. With the rising trend of ESG requirements worldwide, it was predicted that non-ESG compliant companies might lose out on investment opportunities. Hence, local companies are urged to take proactive steps to mitigate this risk and play their role in tackling the climate crisis.

Furthermore, based on the Pol.is conversation results, most participants agree to increased penalties on corporations that harm and/or pollute the environment.

Threats were also identified in the findings on climate change risks. The findings mainly reflected a mismatch between knowledge or awareness of climate change and the significance of limiting global warming to 1.5℃ as in the Paris Agreement. The findings showed that most of the respondents believed that the government is responsible for limiting global warming to 1.5℃, with a small segment believing that a target is unnecessary. As noted above and as seen in Figure 2, there is generally a good level of awareness among youths on climate change risks. This against the awareness of limiting global warming would indicate some lack of awareness on how global warming relates to climate change.

Opportunities

Based on the threats presented, a number of opportunities present themselves that could be taken by stakeholders. Participants appear to strongly support most of the water policy options presented in the survey (see graph below). Thus, it could present valuable opportunities for stakeholders, especially corporations, by being first-movers or pioneers.

[Figure 5: Participant’s preferred policy strategies]

Public support on implementation will be strong if there was more: i) integrated water resource management; ii) technological innovation, such as water-recycling technology; iii) climate change adaptation planning, such as improving early warning systems; iv) nature-based solutions, for example mangrove conservation for coastal protection; v) water demand management, such as use of water-saving toilets; and vi) integrated river basin management.

Further to the above, the survey findings confirm that a majority of participants agreed to encourage the private sector to invest in water-conserving and recycling technologies.

Closing: Call to Action
Moving forward, corporations should be more attentive towards the environmental impact of their actions, and make climate-friendly decisions in their businesses. Corporations are encouraged to be honest about their sustainability capacity because it is arguably better to make pledges they can deliver and act on, rather than making large but empty declarations in their sustainability report. We hope that by sharing these findings, corporations are able to fill in the gaps.

Nonetheless, the responsibility does not solely fall on the shoulders of corporations. The government should also be active in tackling climate change alongside corporations because both stakeholders should complement each other in their actions – areas in which the government falls short in, the private sector can support further or compensate for, and vice versa. 

Lastly, the public too has a role to play in this. As the current generation, we owe a duty towards the coming generations to safeguard and ensure the sustainability of resources. This article demonstrates that public participation is crucial in holding the authorities accountable and paves the way forward for the public to partake more actively in climate movements.

 

References:

  1. Malaysia Third Biennial Update Report to the UNFCCC https://unfccc.int/sites/default/files/resource/MALAYSIA_BUR3-UNFCCC_Submission.pdf
  2. Ayisy Yusof. (2021, Aug 9) “Companies urged to adopt ESG standards”. News Straits Times. <https://www.nst.com.my/business/2021/08/716368/companies-urged-adopt-esg-standards>.
  3. (2021, Aug 31) “Over 450 areas in Selangor affected by unscheduled water cut”. The Star. <https://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2021/08/31/over-450-areas-in-selangor-affected-by-unscheduled-water-cut>.
  4. Slezak, M. “Australian teenagers’ climate change class action case opens ‘big crack in the wall’, expert says”. ABC News. 27 May 2021, 26 September 2021. <https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-05-27/climate-class-action-teenagers-vickery-coal-mine-legal-precedent/100169398>.
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1 thought on “News Splash: The rippling effects of water pollution”

  1. I fully agree with the point of view of this article. As a responsible citizen, we must also have the idea of avoiding pollution of water sources, rather than selfishly thinking that it is none of our business. It is not only the responsibility of the government and enterprises, but the responsibility of the whole nation and even the whole world. In addition, the government should often publicize topics or lectures on avoiding water pollution so that the people can better understand the key points.

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