Aerial photo of bridge over river (© NoriD'Petir/
The Sungai Johor Bridge crosses the Johor River, a drinking source for Johor Bahru, Malaysia. (© NoriD'Petir/

A delegation of six water officials from Johor Bahru, Malaysia, met with their counterparts in Washington to share strategies for tackling modern water concerns. The visit resulted in new technology-based solutions.

One focus of the October 2021 exchange was how the independent Washington utility, called DC Water, addresses climate change and flood management. It distributes safe drinking water and collects and treats wastewater for 700,000 Washington residents and 18 million annual visitors to the city. It also provides wastewater treatment services to 1.6 million people in nearby counties in Maryland and Virginia.

The delegation toured DC Water’s Blue Plains facility, which bills itself as the world’s largest advanced wastewater treatment plant. It uses some of the industry’s most advanced technology. On a typical day, it treats millions of liters of wastewater.

“We are committed to implementing integrated wastewater management,” said Dato’ Ramlee bin A Rahman, chief executive of Permodalan Darul Ta’zim, an investment holding company. He singled out “centralized treatment plants and various technology adaptations from DC Water that suit with our climate to become a much more sustainable state in peninsular Malaysia.”

The Johor state government owns Permodalan Darul Ta’zim, or PDT, which works in multiple sectors, including water infrastructure, energy and green technology.

The exchange between DC Water and the PDT delegation focused on ways to secure backup power, create a continuity-of-operations plan and implement green infrastructure, such as a solar project. DC Water is preparing for drought conditions by securing reservoirs for potential water storage.

The group investigated DC Water’s Clean Rivers Project, an infrastructure program with nearly 30 kilometers of tunnels that reduce sewer overflow during heavy rainfall and prevent future flood crises. It has secured billions of liters of combined sewage and lots of trash, solids and debris that would have otherwise made their way into the Potomac River. The system diverts it all to the wastewater treatment plant.

“We take all that dirty water, and we treat it to very high levels of cleanliness,” said Matthew Ries, DC Water’s director of strategic leadership and sustainability. “And that is why what we put into the Potomac River is cleaner than what’s already there in the river.”

View of river and bridge with fog and seagulls (© Daniel Slim/AFP/Getty Images)
The Potomac River supplies Washington’s drinking water. (© Daniel Slim/AFP/Getty Images)

This exchange is part of the Water Smart Engagements program, in conjunction with the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Water Partnership. The program boosts water security with Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Smart City Network partners by matching them with U.S. utilities to exchange services, goods, science and technology. The other collaborations pair water personnel in:

  • San Francisco and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, to improve water and wastewater utility emergency response planning.
  • Milwaukee and Phuket, Thailand, to focus on stormwater management, deep tunnel feasibility and technology.
  • Hillsboro, Oregon, and Vientiane, Laos, to work on wastewater treatment, water reuse and climate resilience.

The rise in water use for urban, industrial and agricultural activities has affected supplies in ASEAN cities, leading to groundwater depletion and severe surface and groundwater pollution. Storms, droughts and floods exacerbate these issues. But exchanges among these partners can lead to more creative, efficient and effective approaches to 21st-century water challenges.

As the next step in their partnership, DC Water executives will head to Johor Bahru in April to study its water program.

“We need to understand what are their needs as they look to develop their water capabilities and … what we can learn,” Ries said. “It’s a two-way street.”