By Jiya Valiram
The clean water and sanitation crisis is a growing global issue. One of the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals is to find a solution to this problem by 2030. However, with 1.2 billion people worldwide currently drinking unclean water and 2.5 billion more lacking adequate sanitation, the possibility of resolving this issue is bleak. This is a dire problem with more than 5 million deaths caused annually by water-related diseases such as cholera and dysentery (Ngai Weng, 2004). A Malaysian study conducted in 2017 classified 9% of all local rivers polluted and 39% slightly polluted. Decontaminating polluted rivers is costly and even then, there is no guarantee that the river water can be fully disinfected and safe for consumption (Afroz, 2017).
The pollution of our rivers has it’s roots in the early 1800s when early European Colonists arrived in Malaysia and began exploiting the country’s rich resources (Mokthsim, 2014). Their aggressive farming resulted in the soil losing essential nutrients and played a dominant role in water contamination (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, n.d.). More recently, unhygienic squatter communities have emerged on hazardous banks. These squatter communities unload their waste directly into the rivers, using them as public sewers and pose a serious threat to cleaning up rivers and protecting water resources (Ngai Weng, 2004). Yet, they are not solely at fault. People living in the squatter communities are unknowingly causing harm to the rivers as they do not have access to education or proper facilities that could alleviate river pollution.
(Managing river pollution loads, 2019)
Malaysians are no stranger to water struggles and have been subjected to diesel contaminated water coming out of their taps, unscheduled water cuts, and more (Ahmad, 2019). For example, “Starfresh” — a Malaysian water brand — had to recall bottles of water from grocery stores in December of 2020 due to contamination with human faeces and other bacteria that can cause serious infections and illnesses. Sadly, that wasn’t the first time the brand had to recall their water as the same incident occurred 18 months earlier (New Straits Times, 2020).
Not only is the lack of clean water and sanitation detrimental to human life, but it is a hazard to our environment and aquatic life too. Plastic and other chemicals are dumped into rivers killing and poisoning marine life. The chemicals (specifically nitrogen that is found in fertiliser) create layers of algae for bacteria to feed on, decreasing the levels of oxygen for aquatic life and severely harming them. Additionally, when harmful toxins are consumed by aquatic animals which are then ingested by humans, it can cause major illnesses (Bin Mauludi, 2020).
Urbanization is another contributor to the decreasing quality of water. The condition of coastal waters in Selangor has been deteriorating as a result of an unending stream of waste being discarded in rivers from housing areas, industrial areas, and human activities such as agriculture and land development. Furthermore, as populations increase, the demand for water goes up, and with it, the discharge of wastewater which causes a foul odor (New Straits Times, 2015).
The SPARK Foundation is a non-profit organization based in Malaysia that is dedicated to solving humanitarian issues such as polluted waters and a lack of education. Through their W.A.T.E.R PROJECT, they have been able to educate communities with rivers flowing through their neighborhoods on the importance of clean water and sanitation. Among other things, they have so far restored five rivers (Sungai Way, Sungai Penchala, Sungai Senam, Sungai Buntong, and Sungai Kledang) in Malaysia and partnered with the local government to install rubbish traps in rivers (SPARK Foundation, 2019). According to Charity Navigator, a charity assessment organization that assesses charitable organizations, the SPARK Foundation has received a 91.89% financial rating and 77% transparency rating, giving an overall score of 82.75% (Charity Navigator, n.d.).
Although it will take so much more to eliminate this problem, it is a good start and has proved beneficial thus far.
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