The Johor River Basin

Malaysia’s historically abundant water resources have served as the foundation for the country’s socioeconomic progress in recent decades. However, although 97% of people in Malaysia are connected to piped water, fragmented governance coupled with increased demand, unsustainable tariffs, climate variability, and a deficit in infrastructure investment has degraded ecosystems and water quality. Recognising the challenges faced in the country, the Malaysian Government has invested concerted efforts to address and achieve environmental sustainability. The Hub has been requested to directly support the government in their delivery of the Twelfth Malaysia Plan (12MP), assisting them in protecting the environment and ensuring a water secure future.

The study area for our Malaysia Collaboratory is the Johor River Basin, a catchment area of 2,636 km² with a population of 342,593, located within Johor State in southern Malaysia. Johor State has typically been water-rich but is now facing a water crisis. The Johor River, known locally as Sungai Johor, is an important source of drinking water. Home to many communities, including indigenous Orang Asli people, a wide variety of economic activities takes place along the river and within its catchment. Eco-tourism is also important for the Johor River Basin.

The main water security issues faced within the basin are water shortages and water pollution. Increased water consumption from economic, industrial, and population growth, combined with water stresses like flooding, drought, and pollution, have reduced the basin’s water catchments. The Johor River supplies water not only for its surrounding catchment area, but also to Singapore – alarmingly, the raw water capacity of the basin has begun to decrease.  

Over recent years water quality within the basin has deteriorated, affecting thousands of people. Pollution and discharge from agriculture, livestock farming, factories, and domestic sewage (much of which is linked to the state’s primary sources of economic revenue), all impact the water of Johor and threaten the environment and important ecosystems. There are also emerging concerns over public health impacts, with pathogens, bacteria, pesticides, chemicals, and heavy metals found in water samples.

Climate change impacts are exacerbating existing water insecurities in the basin and creating new ones. Rising sea levels lead to the infiltration of saline water, and drier than normal conditions are reducing dam levels. Additionally, heavy floods that occur due to extreme rainfall during the monsoon season cause disruption and damage to infrastructure and communities, as well as the loss of lives.

Through collaborations with a broad range of policy makers and agencies, our researchers are assisting the government in shaping sustainable practices and policies for better water security and environmental sustainability.

River flow gauging using a flow meter

Research

The Malaysia Collaboratory’s objectives are to (1) establish a river basin authority to aid the government and oversee management of the Johor River Basin; (2) establish a strategic framework for integrated river basin management (IRBM); (3) empower local communities with knowledge to make decision on water access, use, and management, and have their voices heard by the IRBM Authority.

The Malaysia Collaboratory has established multiple, integrated research strands that come together to enable understanding of water security within the Johor River Basin. The team has established a water monitoring programme, determining the water quality of the river and its tributaries under different conditions, and identifying and mapping pollution sources that threaten both water resources and the environment. Linkages between water and public health, including concerns from bacteria, heavy metals, and other contaminants, are being investigated. The team is identifying issues within water infrastructure planning, operations, and management, developing a framework for more accurate and sustainable planning.

Water quality and scenario models are being developed, to allow for more accurate future water quality forecasting according to various land use changes and scenarios. Working together with the Department of Irrigation and Drainage (DID), the team is compiling rainfall datasets and establishing a framework for multi-platform, citizen science-based rainfall monitoring, to supplement the current network and fill data gaps for modelling. Hub researchers are also contributing to the National Climate Change Adaptation Framework (to manage climate impacts on water); the Malaysia Adaptation Index (to assess Malaysian states on planning, readiness, and implementation of adaptation measures); and the Strengthening of the Environmental Governance in Malaysia study (to help improve existing environmental governance).

As well as citizen science, the Collaboratory is working together with people living within the basin in other ways, to understand current knowledge and behaviours, empower hidden voices of marginalised groups, and maximise opportunities for local action. Multi-stakeholder workshops provide a platform for discussion, sharing, and learning; enabling community voices to be heard directly and the co-creation of mutually agreed and beneficial solutions. Additionally, an education programme is being designed to build community awareness on water and river-related behaviour within the basin.

Our Malaysia Collaboratory’s goal is to establish water governance solutions in policy and practice, enabling integrated river basin management in the Johor River Basin and providing a model of IRBM that could be adopted by other Malaysian states. Data is crucial to achieving integrated water resource management and better decision making, and our Malaysian colleagues are developing a river basin sustainability indicator called MyRIBASIN.

Colombian colleagues on the Sg Johor, Malaysia

Malaysia Collaboratory leadership

The Malaysia Collaboratory is leading on the Hub’s research in several different areas, namely: water quality and health, community participation (i.e., Coffee Talks, video pitching competition, citizen science programme), climate change, and the river basin index.

The Malaysia team is working together with both our India team, on exploring water sensitive planning, and our Colombia team, on understanding linkages between water and public health. Additionally, Malaysian colleagues are working in cross-Hub teams to; explore climate variability and uncertainty, understand the global politics of data, seek nutrient recycling opportunities for developing sustainable aquaculture production systems, understand the role of global data sets for riverine flood risk management at national scales, and investigate hydrological and water quality characteristics through modelling. Our Malaysian Collaboratory is also leading on the Hub’s climate change and adaptation webinar series. Each webinar focuses on climate change-related issues faced in one of our Collaboratories, bringing together multidisciplinary teams from both within and outside the Hub, providing a platform for intellectual discussion and collective action.

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