Is this a sign of things to come as our planet contends with water shortages aggravated by competing demand from the public and demand from industry (to cater to ever-increasing production of consumer goods, which in turn requires more raw materials)?

Why haven’t we heard more about the Labuan water shortages? Some 80,000 Labuan residents, including 4,000 students, have been faced with a serious water shortage since July.

Bernama reports that demand for water in Labuan is about 56 million litres a day but supply (from the mainland) is only at 42 million litres, a shortfall of 25 per cent. But 10 million litres (about a quarter) of the water supply is consumed by Petronas’ mega methanol plant (photo here).

And the people suffer.

In February 2008, The Star reported:

Petroliam Nasional Bhd’s subsidiary, Petronas Methanol (Labuan) Sdn Bhd had commissioned its mega methanol plant in Labuan with the firing up of the package boiler, the biggest in Asia. Petronas said Friday the commissioning would enable the plant’s eventual commercial production scheduled for September this year (2008).

The boiler, with a 260-tonne/hour capacity, was delivered to Labuan by MISC Bhd in June last year and installed by local contractors. The boiler is supported by high quality feed water produced by a reverse osmosis system, while electrical power is supplied from a 14MW gas turbine generator.

In a media release for the financial year ended 31 March 2009, Petronas reported that production of commercial methanol at the mega methanol plant began in January 2009.  The plant has a total capacity of 1.7 million tonnes a year and it has raised Petronas’ capacity from 2,000 tonnes per day to 7,000 tonnes per day.

The larger dilemma is, what are our priorities? To produce methanol, which is often used in making other chemicals, or to conserve water and ensure adequate water supply for the population?

This report from Bernama:

The water woes are also giving a lot of stress to some 4,000 students at two institutions of higher learning here — Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS) and Matriculation College — as water supply to their hostels have slowed to a trickle.

They now rely on tankers from the Water Department for additional supplies, just like the rest of the islanders here.

“Not even a drop of water to drink from the pipe, what more to bathe?,” asked a UMS student from Sarawak’s interior, who wished to be known as Abdul Wahid.

“I never thought I would face this kind of problem when I enrolled into UMS early this year. I want to look fresh each time my class starts. Unfortunately, there is no water to bathe, wash my face or even brush my teeth (in my hostel),” he said.

He added: “Labuan is not an isolated place as compared to my area in Sarawak. I am not living in the interior here. Whoever gets up early will have a chance to bathe (before the water runs out). The worst part is that the toilets stink because there is no water to flush.”

A staff at the Student Affairs Unit of Matriculation College said there were 2,348 students studying at the college. The majority come from Sarawak and Sabah, with a small number from Peninsular Malaysia.

“Many parents of the students have been calling us, following the water problem in our college but there is nothing much we can do. It is beyond our control. This is an unexpected problem, we have never had this problem before,” she said.

Some lecturers had even asked for transfers, citing the water dilemma as their reason for leaving and students had also told the college that they too want to quit.

UMS Senior Assistant Registrar of Students Affairs Zamri Haji Mohd Tuah said there were some 1,900 students currently staying in the UMS hostel.

“What we are worried about now is that the lack of water supply could lead to other diseases. The Health Department is now monitoring the situation, day and night,” he said.

How bad is the situation there? If you are a Labuan resident or student or have visited the island recently, share your experience with us in the comments below. And water or methanol?