20 May 2009

Environmental engineering in Malaysia

By Dr Ngu Lock Hei

(Published in’Campus & Beyond’, a weekly column written by Swinburne academics in the Borneo Post newspaper)

The health of the environment has today become a major concern around the globe. Governments, eco-friendly groups and even individuals are banding together to address the issue. So not surprisingly, environmental engineering has grown in importance in the race to find solutions to the world’s environmental problems.
Environmental engineering, a major discipline of chemical and civil engineering, is concerned with the protection of the ecosystem from potentially deleterious effects of human activity, the protection of human populations from adverse environmental factors and improving environmental quality for human health and well-being.

It covers a wide range of issues such as air, noise and water pollution as well as solid, industrial and hazardous waste generation and management, wastewater and water treatment, soil erosion control, resources planning, environmental management and monitoring, human safety and health, sustainable development, emission of carbon dioxides and other greenhouse gases, and so forth.

It is a crucial component to achieving sustainable development such as in the management of the country’s resources and in addressing the production of wastes that result from developmental, commercial, industrial, agricultural and domestic activities.

The prospect of growth for environmental engineering in Malaysia is huge. It is predicted to be one of the fastest growing engineering disciplines in the next 50 years. The national environmental market is growing at a rate of 10% annually. About 35% of the investment that goes into the environmental sector is for equipment while the remaining 65% is for services. Demand for environmental engineers and specialists are therefore on the rise.

Areas that have been identified for growth are sewerage and industrial waste water treatment, industrial and hazardous waste management, solid waste management and water treatment.

However, Malaysia currently faces a shortage of resources, manpower and technical expertise to effectively cater for the development of its environmental needs. The country imports most of its environmental technology but the government encourages collaborative projects between foreign and local partners, especially those that provide the country with long term technology transfer. Such collaboration will help the country develop technologies that are suitable for its environmental well-being. At the same time it will provide employment, market development and training for local environmental experts.

The Malaysia Environment Quality Report published in 2006 indicates that seven percent of rivers in Malaysia are polluted. Major water pollution sources are from sewage treatment plants and manufacturing industries.

In the same year, the Malaysian government allocated RM800 million for the repair and upgrade of existing sewage treatment plants as well as construction of new sewerage treatment plants. The Sarawak government has recently approved a master plan to build a centralized sewage treatment plant for Kuching in 2008. Hence, environmental engineers will be highly sought after to design, construct, commission, operate and maintain these facilities.

Malaysia is on track to becoming an industrialized nation. With the growth of various industries is also the increase in waste water generated from industries. Industrial waste water has to be treated to comply with regulated quality before it is discharged into inland water bodies. Low-cost waste water systems, monitoring equipment, wastewater-recycling equipment, sludge dryers and industrial purification systems along with environmental consultancy are what the industries need to ensure they comply with environmental regulation when dealing with industrial waste water.

In the management of industrial and hazardous wastes, environmental engineers carry out waste minimization plan, hazardous waste recycling and disposal as well as bio-remediation plan.

The country’s expanding population and rapid economic development means an increase in solid waste, and this is expected to exceed 20,000 tonnes daily by 2020. Solid waste management in major cities has become more difficult with the current system of manual collection. The disposal of such waste is also a problem due to the lack of suitable dumpsites, modernized equipment, methods and environmental controls.

Engineers are therefore needed to design landfill, construct transfer stations, implement waste recycling and composting methods, design and operate waste incinerators facilities.

In the case of water treatment, various state water authorities have been corporatized or privatized in the past few years to increase efficiency in managing the country’s water supply system. Kelantan, Penang and Johor have privatized their water utilities while Selangor, Terengganu and parts of Sarawak have corporatized waterworks departments. Privatization of some aspects of water services such as operation and maintenance of water treatment plants will modernize the country’s water treatment facility and provide the nation with positive advancement in the field of environmental engineering. This is important to meet the country’s projected daily water demand of 15,205.44 million litres per day by 2010 from the current 9,540 million litres per day.

The Malaysian government has approved 62 major projects, including 47 dams costing RM68 billion, nation-wide to be completed by 2050 under a master plan to meet this growing demand. This translates to not only the needs of adequate number of environmental engineers but also other specialists such as civil and mechanical engineers, project managers and engineering consultants.

Besides the five areas mentioned above, environmental engineers are also highly sought after for such areas as air pollution prevention and control, environmental monitoring/management systems, environmental consultation, soil erosion prevention measures, noise monitoring/control, development of recycling systems and oil spill recovery. Overall, the demand for environmental engineers in the country is encouraging.

Dr Ngu Lock Hei is a lecturer with the School of Engineering and Science at Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus. She can be contacted at lngu@swinburne.edu.my.