Two decades of unending Selangor water crises

Chong Yoong Wai

Modified 29 Dec 2019, 2:38 pm

LETTER | I refer to the recent large-scale water cuts that affected residents in the Klang Valley area in the weeks leading up to Christmas.

Yet again, in the state of Selangor, we have had our water cut as a result of irresponsible parties polluting the Sungai Semenyih water catchment area. This is the sixth time a large-scale cut has occurred in the past year alone, and Sungai Semenyih has had a long history of pollution, stretching back to 2003.

Much has been written about the grievances that residents face during these disruptions, but the political silence on these issues is deafening.

We are lucky this time, and the countless times before, that water authorities were able to detect the pollution in the catchment and stop harmful pollutants from contaminating our water supply.

But how many times are we supposed to bet on luck before our water harms us? We, as a country, have already started harming our own people by contaminating Sungai Kim Kim with industrial effluent – effluents which were allowed as a result of loopholes in pollution and water standards, as well as poor urban planning guided by greed and unregulated development.

Does it take a crisis to hit the Klang Valley on the scale of Sungai Kim Kim or Pasir Gudang before the government acts to remedy the situation? It is nefarious enough when over 4,000 people suffered adverse health from the Pasir Gudang incident alone.

At this point, the bottleneck of water services reform is not to be blamed squarely on the water authorities alone. It is to be blamed on the Federal and State Governments that are dragging their heels in ensuring water security for all Malaysians. They have had years to create and execute water strategies to cope with population demand and climate change, renew infrastructure, deal with unsuitable development and logging around catchment, diversify water sources, reduce non-revenue water and strengthen Acts of Parliament and associated planning laws to provide water authorities legal bite to prosecute polluters and seal off water catchment areas to the public.

There exists also a multitude of research papers, commentaries from experts, government whitepapers and even frustrated letters to the editors of major news outlets over the span of a decade into what needs to change in our water supply system. Even Dr Xavier Jayakumar, the Minister for Land, Water and Natural Resources, and the head of Span, Charles Santiago has also come out in support of protecting water catchment.

However, our water system remains weakened by a decentralised, disorganised water management system as a result of a decade of under-investment and failed privatisation that rewarded concessionaires for poor performance, complemented by the poor monitoring of catchments by regulatory authorities with no people, no money and limited legal teeth.

Our 30 drinking water catchments, supplying 97 percent of the country’s water, remain poorly protected from development and pollution as a result – the 10 metre (unguarded) buffer zone is insufficient in protecting the capacity and water quality of catchments.

We can only react to instances of pollution as they arise – we cannot proactively work to reduce the possibility of pollution from the source as a result (or more specifically, we are increasingly relying on the acute sense of smell of the water catchment plant operators to detect pollution before it is allowed to enter the water supply). Coupled with the lack of significant backup water reserves for Selangor, these issues add up to create a large vulnerability in our water system.

This latest incident only shows the ineptitude of state, federal and local government in protecting the people which they purport to serve. Specifically, this latest incident demonstrates the inability of successive governments to create a shared vision for the future and learn from past mistakes and shortcomings made two decades ago.

It shows how governments create the perfect storm of poor water security through a chain of poorly thought-out decisions and policies favouring developers and big (water) businesses. Even in the era of New Malaysia, all levels of government are still treating people with utter contempt, where our welfare is treated as second class to the needs of a select (nepotistic) few.

It is not enough, at this point, to offer thoughts and prayers, or to help residents when there is a water disruption – a step change in how we manage and deliver water is required to earn back our trust.

It is high time our Aduns, MPs, local, state, and federal governments and the Cabinet are held accountable for the water issues in our country, and they should be forced to introduce the step-change reforms necessary to create a resilient, sustainable water system that works now, and into the future.

If there is space for a useful New Years’ resolution for everyone, I hope that it would be not accepting the broken as the new normal – something we all did in Old Malaysia. We cannot sit down and hope that things will eventually change in a broken water system. We, the rakyat, must be the force for change by organising ourselves and demanding these changes. We must not be afraid to call out our new government for its mistakes to ensure it remains accountable.

It is not too late to change the system for the better. However, we must put in the hard miles, the loud voices, the harsh rebukes and the alternative solutions so that all levels of Government cannot continue to ignore us anymore – much like what we all did to Najib Razak two years ago.

CHONG YOONG WAI is the convenor of Malaysian Progressives in Australia.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

Share this story