If oil has been the great resource of the 20th Century, will water be the one most needed in the 21st?

The European Union recently warned that “competition over limited water resources is one of the main concerns for the coming decades” which “may exacerbate existing tensions, increase regional instability and social unrest”.

In this context, Malaysia has announced a goal to shore up its water supplies over the next three years. Syarikat Air Melaka Berhad (SAMB), the state of Melaka’s water supply company, is at the forefront of this challenge, and wants to be a pioneer in using digital technologies to transform the water industry.

“We cannot continue to work how we used to work 10, 20 years ago,” says the CEO, Datuk Ir. Mohd Khalid Hj Nasir. He shared with GovInsider how this utility is using data, tech, and new processes to improve its efficiency, and make the most of Malaysia’s precious resource.

Challenges in water supply services

The scarcity of ‘raw water’ (which is untreated) is one of Melaka’s main challenges, he notes. Melaka imports raw, untreated water from neighboring Johor to keep up with consumers’ demands, but Mohd Khalid noted that it needs to take a “regenerative” approach. Instead of increasing the volume of water extracted every day, SAMB has started recycling some of the water and purifying it for use.

The quality of water has deteriorated over the years, leading to higher costs for water treatment. When water becomes untreatable from the chemicals, the water supply is at risk of being shut off. “Melaka is a tourism state,” said Mohd Khalid: “hotels need water, and we also have medical tourism.” Melaka received almost 5 million tourists in the first three months of this year alone, according to the Malay Mail.

Tech to the rescue

Tech is making a big difference, enabling the company to understand where its product is used and respond quickly when issues arise.  SAMB is working with digital solutions company TM ONE to provide better customer service and gather feedback data. “They’ve expanded their services to help us solve our business problems,” said Mohd Khalid. SAMB used TM ONE’s call centre to respond to customer complaints, and TM ONE then used complaints data to propose solutions for SAMB to improve their services.

This data is then mapped onto Geographic Information System (GIS) for pipe repairs. When customers phone in to report a pipe malfunction, SAMB can immediately activate the nearest team to look into the situation. Thanks to the automated locating system, repair teams can now reach the site within ten to twenty minutes of receiving a call – stopping water leaks and saving H20.

Quickly locating a pipe malfunction is not all GIS can do. “If you don’t know which type of pipe it is, even if you can go to the site within twenty minutes, it still takes a longer time,” said Mohd Khalid. “With good data, we know exactly.”

The GIS system contains information on all water pipes in Melaka. SAMB consolidated data on the pipes’ sizes,materials and how they are connected after conducting a thorough on-site verification. This data is constantly being updated today.   The information has also been made available online. Instead of having to go to the main office and print out drawings of the pipes’ layouts, repair teams can check for the problem pipe’s details on-the-go with just a tap on their mobile phone. They can then call the stores for the right parts to be delivered and repair the malfunction immediately. Water supply can resume in merely three to four hours – a vast improvement from the past, when pipe breakdowns could take up to twenty four hours to fix.

On top of that, the repair team will know whether the breakdown is a major or minor one. “If it is a major breakdown, we can call support immediately and shut the valve, and then we actually reduce wastage,” said Mohd Khalid.

Looking ahead

Mohd Khalid is excited about the digital transformation that can take place in SAMB. “I want our counters to be cashless. No money transactions.” Customers will be able to monitor their water bills on their smartphones. The best case scenario, he says, is that SAMB alerts customers of their bill estimates via email even before the meters are read.

SAMB is also looking into is remote operations for their water plants. Being able to control the plant from a dashboard would mean less manpower needed. Mohd Khalid shared an experience he had visiting a water treatment plant overseas: “Nobody was stationed there, how is the plant even operating? It was from the office, remotely,” he explained. “I want to see that happen in this country.”

For Mohd Khalid, digital transformation is a fundamental part of the water industry’s services. “We must transform. If not, the water industry will be left behind”.