How might we build a university’s capacity to engage communities in solving local water challenges in Malaysia?

Equipping Malaysian Universities to Engage Their Communities and Enhance Local Problem Solving


Southeast Asia struggles with an unfortunate paradox: the region enjoys ample water, but much of it is unsafe or unreliable. In Malaysia, for example, the World Bank reports that per capita renewable internal freshwater resource flows are more than three times the world average! Yet river water quality has decreased so markedly in recent years that many are now unsuitable to provide drinking water.  The Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM), renowned for its technical prowess, has much to offer communities plagued by water challenges.  But UTM leaders acknowledge their need to better translate research and training prowess into solutions not just for communities but devised with communities.


The methods we learned in training were so simple, but they transformed our ability to engage the community and find substantive opportunities for partnership. This experience was beyond imagination and expectation!” 

– Dr. Lee Chew Tin, Associate Professor, Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM)

Working closely with UTM, GKI designed a series of activities to help UTM researchers and students more effectively engage communities to solve local water challenges.  In November 2013, GKI trained over 20 UTM researchers and 60 students.  The training taught participants how to assess community needs and to identify areas of overlap between those needs and university research interests.  It also taught them steps for creating shared expectations and plans for ongoing partnership.  Researchers and students debuted their new skills at a Community Kickoff Meeting in Air Papan.  Working side-by-side, researchers, students, and community members prioritized four water challenges that merit joint effort: paddy field irrigation, sustainable fisheries, ecotourism, and water management.  The resulting collaborative research projects are now active and receiving funding.  Energized by the results of this capacity building effort, UTM created a new University Community Transformation Centre and continues to promote the collaborative innovation skills generated through this engagement.

Results / Outcomes

  • Designed an interactive training program complete with instruction manuals and data analysis templates
  • Trained 20+ researchers and 60 students from UTM
  • Engaged local community members in prioritizing needs and shaping partnership plans
  • Spurred the development (and funding) of 4 collaborative research projects
  • Generated a groundswell of enthusiasm for collaborative innovation and community engagement across campus, resulting in the creation of a University Community Transformation Centre to take forward this work
  • Piloted a training model designed to be replicated across Malaysia and South Asia