Water consumption and crop water use in Malaysia

I live in Selangor state, where people here enjoy free water for the first 20 cubic meters. My monthly water bills have been reading negative (yes, negative) RM21 because I had continued to pay about RM7 every month for three months, without realizing that when the opposition parties gained control of Selangor, they had proclaimed free water for all Selangor citizens. In other words, I had overpaid my (free) water for three months. Silly me.

Should water really be free? (photo from airuntukrakyat.net)

I have also seen billboards around, setup by the opposition parties, that essentially screamed, “Water should be free because water is our right”.

While I agree that water is our right, I am uncomfortable with the idea that water should thus be free (even if it is free up to 20 cubic meters). The problem when water is given free or heavily subsidized is it makes people wasteful in water use and oblivious to the scarcity and importance of water.

No one would disagree that water is absolutely crucial to life. A person may survive for weeks (and even months) without food. But in extreme conditions such as being locked inside a fully enclosed car parked under the sun can kill a child in a few hours due to severe dehydration.

Besides, can anything replace water? We can replace our energy from dirty fossil fuels (such as coal, gas, and diesel) with renewable sources such as sun, wind, sea waves, and underground heat (geothermal energy). But what about water? There is no substitute to water.

Rains bring water down to the grounds, and the water from the grounds returns to the atmosphere via evaporation, which, in turn, form clouds and subsequently rain. This completes the Earth’s hydrological cycle.

Consequently, the amount of water on Earth has remained the same. The water we drink today is the same water that has been drunk by animals, dinosaurs, plants, and other humans in the past. The amount of water we have now has to be shared with our future generations. There is no additional water supply to meet the increased water demand by the people of the future.

The Earth may be covered by over 70% water, but only 2% of that water is freshwater that we can consume directly. Furthermore, not all of that 2% freshwater can be used. Slightly over 30% of the Earth’s freshwater come from groundwater sources, rivers, and lakes. The rest is from ice caps and glaciers. This means the freshwater which we can easily obtain and consume only comes from 0.6% of Earth’s total water.

Malaysia may be blessed with abundant rains, averaging between 2,000 to 3,000 mm annual rainfall. However, not all rains fall in water catchment areas and the rainfall distribution is not uniform throughout the year. There would be periods of dry weather. States like Penang, Selangor, Melaka, and Perlis often suffer from periods of low water supply.

I obtained the rainfall data from 1998 to 2008 for 14 towns in Malaysia. Some towns such as Alor Setar, Chuping, Subang, and Senai see a rather clear trend of increased rainfall per year. In contrast, towns such as Mersing, Kuantan, and Kota Bharu see no trend of rainfall change per year. Nonetheless, averaged across all of the 14 towns shows that, on average, Malaysia sees an increase in rainfall by about 26 mm per year.

Annual rainfall for some towns in Malaysia (1989-2008) - Set 01

Annual rainfall for some towns in Malaysia (1989-2008) - Set 02

Annual rainfall for some towns in Malaysia (1989-2008) - Set 03

So, Malaysia sees an overall increased rainfall per year, but does this mean Malaysia has little to worry about water supply meeting water demands?

Let’ see. Malaysia’s water consumption is alarmingly high and increasing every year. In 2009, Malaysians consumed more than 300 liters of water per person per day compared to 150 liters per person per day by Singaporeans. Furthermore, Malaysians’ water consumption per capita per day increases about 7.6 liters per year.

Malaysia's increasing water consumption (2005-2009)

Worryingly, this increase in water consumption is not matched by an increase in water reserves. Since 2005, Malaysia’s water reserves per capita per day is declining at a rate of 5.8 liters per year. At this rate, Malaysia would be left with nearly no water reserves by 2025.

Malaysia's declining water reserves (2005-2009). By 2025, Malaysia could have little reserves left.

Malaysia obtains freshwater nearly all (97%) from surface water sources such as rivers and the rest (3%) from underground sources. The bleak news is the number of rivers in Malaysia classified as “Clean” has declined by 12.5% from 80 rivers in 2005 to 70 in 2009.

Bottled water is a rapidly growing and lucrative industry. Global bottled water consumption increases about 7% per year, and Asia makes up 26% of the world’s bottled water consumption. Probably because Malaysia has not fully tapped the underground water sources, bottled water consumption in Malaysia is relatively low compared to neighboring countries. Thailand consumed about 77 liters of bottled water per capita in 2004, followed by Brunei (53 liters), Indonesia (31 liters), and Singapore (24 liters). The Philippines, Malaysia, and Vietnam each consumed less than 24 liters per capita in 2004.

Unfortunately, bottled water depletes groundwater sources. For instance, two liters of groundwater is required to produce one liter of bottled water. This net loss means if the consumption of bottled water keeps increasing, the extraction of underground water would become unsustainable, extracting more water than what can be replenished from rivers and rain.

Bottled water consumption is increasing in Malaysia for several reasons:

  1. Convenience of clean water being available when needed
  2. Dissatisfaction over municipal water
  3. Increased perception and demand for clean, odourless, and colourless water

Compared to all other industries, the agriculture sector consumes the most water. Eighty five percent of the world’s water consumption is by the agriculture sector at a rate of 235 million liters per second! And 70% of that water is wasted.

World crop production in the period 1996 to 2005 consumed an average of 7,404 trillion liters per year, of which the three main cereal crops, wheat, rice, and maize, consumed nearly 40% of that water amount. Huge and incredible amounts of water are needed to produce agriculture products. Between 1,000 to 2,000 liters of water is needed to produce 1 kg of rice and oil palm. This range is dwarfed by the production of 1 kg of cocoa and rubber, where they require about 13,000 and 20,000 liters of water, respectively.

Proportion of water footprint for global crop production. World crop production in the period 1996 to 2005 consumed an average of 7,404 trillion liters per year. Figure from Mekonnen and Hoekstra (2010).

Water consumption for some crops (left) and primary crop groups (right)

For Malaysia, the total water consumption for crop production is 54 trillion liters per year which translates to 1.7 million liters of water per second is used for crop production. Total land area used for crop production in Malaysia is about 6.6 million hectares. So, this works out to 820 mm of water per year, or approximately 30 to 40% of Malaysia’s annual rainfall, is used for crop production.

Water footprint for crop production around the world. Figure from Mekonnen and Hoekstra (2010).

In Malaysia, oil palm only uses about 550 liters of water for every 1 kg of crop yield. Rice production in Malaysia consumes nearly 3,000 liters of water for every 1 kg crop yield. Coffee, cocoa, and rubber are among the highest consumers of water, using between 10,000 to 20,000 liters of water for every 1 kg of crop yield.

Table 1: Crop water use (L/kg) in Malaysia

CropL water / kg yield
pumpkins, squash and gourds75
cucumbers and gherkins107
sugar cane141
sweet potatoes296
roots and tubers442
oil palm551
ground nuts886
fruit, fresh1,188
grape fruit and pomelo1,242
citrus fruits1,297
lemons and lines1,476
fruit, tropical1,541
oil seeds3,191
cashew nuts4,608
betel nuts6,456
pimento and all spice10,167
nutmeg, mace and cardamoms25,000
TOTAL (all crops)917


All these figures and calculations show that Malaysia may receive large amounts of rain, but large of amounts of water are used for agricultural purposes. Water is also used in large quantities by other industries in downstream activities. For example, oil palm may require a global average of 1,000 liters for every 1 kg of oil palm yield. However, to produce 1 kg of palm oil products requires an additional 4,000 liters of water to extract and process the oil from the oil palm bunches.

This situation is not helped when Malaysians are generally negligent users of water, consuming, as stated earlier, more than 300 liters per person per day, nearly double the figure of 165 liters as recommended by the United Nations.

And if water continues to be heavily subsidized or be offered free, I do not expect water consumption among Malaysians to be reduced significantly anytime soon. As Prof. Chan Ngai Weng of Universiti Sains Malaysia remarked, “If Malaysians can reduce their water consumption by 10 to 20 percent, then the country does not need to build a dam at least for the next 10 years.”


  1. “Bottled water consumption grows steadily” by The Brunei Times
  2. “The Looming Water Crisis in Cities” by The Malaysian Digest
  3. “Bottled Water Market in Malaysia – Creating Ripples?” by Frost & Sullivan
  4. “Water/Aquatic Environment” – Dept. of Statistics of Malaysia
  5. Volume 1 and Volume 2 – Mekonnen, M.M. and Hoekstra, A.Y. (2010) The green, blue and grey water footprint of crops and derived crop products, Value of Water Research Report Series No.47, UNESCO-IHE, The Netherlands.


  1. Fully agree with your concern on free water

    Water was free when collected from rain, wells, puddles and rivers. Homes were free when living under tree canopies or caves. Water can no longer be free when it is cleansed and delivered to piped-in-water homes. Free water has no value and usually goes to waste. Delivering 20m3 of free water to every piped in household In Selangor is an ill-afforded luxury. The moral is: “Nothing comes from nothing, nothing ever could!”

    Lesson from “Down-Under”.

    About 30 years ago many parts of Australia received free water. I was amazed to see lawn sprinklers were left running day and night until water flow out to roads and drains. Some were unaware they were drowning their lawns out of sheer ignorance and indulgence. Every house has a bath-tub and some even built swimming pools. Bore-waters drawing waters from the Great Artesian Basin were releasing water continuously for decades without any control wasting trillions of litres of fossil water that took millions of years to accumulate. The funniest thing then was when water was free and cheap the Local Government made it illegal to own rain-water harvesting tanks. 20 years later the Government paid billions to subsidised rain harvesting tanks for each house-hold with piped-in-water. Now we can all understand how Australia achieve the infamous reputation, “Australia is the driest Continent on Earth”.

    Please don’t go down this ‘watery and slippery road’ for heaven’s sake. It can break the Banks.

    Conventional agriculture food production is the highest water consumer estimated at 70-85% of the total 3% freshwater on earth. Very few people are giving much thought to increasing water efficiency to double or triple food production. It could lower the price of food. We fear disrupting the “business-as-usual” status-quo existing in present enterprises. It is exactly like substituting non-renewable with renewable. Those Big Boys who are in do not want to allow New Kids on the block to come in with fresh innovative ideas.

    Surprise to note in your blog not a word about Aquaculture or Fish was mentioned. But, they are the most efficient user of freshwater if one knows how. Are fish not regarded as crops or Aquaculture a production system of crops? Why?

    • I am not surprised to learn large water wastage by Australians when water was offered free then. I like the explanation that water is free if harvested directly from the rain, but water treatment costs a lot of money, so how can that be free? In some poor countries, access to clean water can be the difference between life, sickness, and death, so it is essential clean water be supplied to them. And since people are poor, the government should at least heavily subsidize the water, or better, give the water for free to the people. But much more developed countries like Malaysia do not require such water subsides because they instead encourage water wastage especially in drier states like Selangor.

  2. Hello,
    Great article, enjoyed reading it. Do you perhaps have any on waste pollutions in Malaysia? Perhaps on the municipal, industrial and agricultural waste? Including data and reference as i am working on a assignment for geography. It would be most gracious of you if you can help me, thank you.

  3. I agreed.
    Singapore actually managed their water effectively like:-
    1. reduce leakage(% better than England if I am not wrong)
    2. reduce demand by managing the prices( aim to reduce to probably 144 in another 5-10 years)
    3. clean the river
    4. make more reservoirs with ” active , beautify , and clean programme”
    5. recycling water , new plants to treat seawater

    I am amazed by their efforts in cherishing this fundamental water resource and tries to be self reliant as possible as they can~!
    Yet at the same time, I feel kinda sad as I see that Malaysia does not see it as essential resource.Water consumption is increased and not controlled, more polltuions etc. In the next century , people might fight for water instead of oil.

    Malaysia should take water resource seriously, with good management , flood can be released , water demand can be met better , and less pollution is to be seen~!

    • Thanks, Jia, for your feedback. One group sees water as a free resource and a right to Malaysians, without appreciating that it costs money to treat (clean) water. There is no aggressive campaign to save water or to reuse it. They champion that water is our right, but why just water and not food? For instance, we do not see “free rice” or “free vegetables” being offered to Malaysians.

      It is unfortunate water is treated as a political issue in Malaysia to the detriment to the people.

  4. Dear Sir,
    I am doing my research and thesis on water and sustainable design .

    I have read through the statistic of Malaysia( as stated in your reference), but didnt find the annual rainfall for the particular towns , they were given based on the stations and airports .

    I would like to know where you have obtained the annual data , I particularly need the data for malacca and muar town. As the data given above is from 1989-2008, I actually hope to get a more latest one , maybe until 2010-2011. I also intend to include those graphs into my research report, probably need to cite them , so wondering if you could tell me where you obtained them .THANKS so much !:)

    • Rainfall data (as well as other meteorological data) can be obtained for a fee from the Met. Dept. at Petaling Jaya. You need to go there (there is a service counter) and apply for it. They will then email you the data a few days later. Since you only require rainfall data for two towns and for two years, the fee won’t be much (perhaps less than RM100).

  5. thanks for the really informative and good article. May i know your reference for the table of crop water use in Malaysia? it will good references for me since i doing research on water use in agriculture. Thanks for your help and really appreciate it.

    • The reference for Malaysia (as well as other countries) is as listed at the end of the blog entry:
      Volume 1 and Volume 2 – Mekonnen, M.M. and Hoekstra, A.Y. (2010) The green, blue and grey water footprint of crops and derived crop products, Value of Water Research Report Series No.47, UNESCO-IHE, The Netherlands.

  6. A good article. I enjoyed reading it. However, the author believes that free
    water makes people in selangor wasteful in terms of water usage. Has that fact ever been proven empirically ?

    • As I mentioned in the article, Malaysia’s water consumption is higher than that recommended by UN and that consumed by Singapore. The unit of measure is based on per capita (per person). Moreover, Malaysia’s water consumption per capita increases every year. It is also interesting to learn that Singapore is very meticulous in saving water and in preventing water leaks. Every early morning, for example, you will find workers listening to water leaks along pipes inside the ground. To the uninitiated, they look like they are using a metal detector to find treasure! But they are actually listening to water leaks using a sensitive listening device.

  7. Another great and excellent write up! Fills up more blanks on my mind with regards to crop planting.

    It felt like I was reading the Economist Magazine.

  8. Who does not want free 20 cubic meter water? Even a billionaire would love it. I agree with Christopher, if we keep having free water, we tend to waste it more (on treated water). For farming activities, they normally use raw water from nearby rivers and it absolutely FREE. I will be the first person on earth to demonstrate if raw water from rivers is chargeable… ha ha ha. but i will demonstrate it in stadium not on da street.

    • Yes, irrigation for farms mostly come from rivers, but there have been plans (like in Australia) where farmers have to pay for water licenses for water from a nearby dam. Also remember that treated water for domestic and industry mostly come from the rivers, so water from the rivers are shared out to domestic and industrial use and farming activities.

  9. A comprehensive write ups on water issues. Congrats. It seems that not many people knows the fact that only 0.5% of water can be use for daily consumption. 97% are salted water and 2.5% are glaziers. And yet we still have plenty of raw water supply. On whether it is free of not (water in Selangor) , the government (state and federal) must tackle these problems amicably because at the end of the day the rakyats will suffer a long water crisis (treated water).

  10. Hi Dr.,

    May i know your references for the graph of Malaysian’s water consumption and water reserves above? it would be a good reference for me since i’m doing a research on Selangor’s water. Your help would be much appreciated. TQ 🙂

    • I got those numbers from the Water report from Dept. of Statistics, Malaysia. The link is as given in the blog entry. The report also contains water use and reserves for the various states in Malaysia, including Selangor which you would find useful.

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