Klang Valley denizens over the past weeks and months experienced yet again the pain of water deprivation. Reports earlier this year indicated that the “water reserve margin” topped 10 percent, yet a single pollution event on Sungai Selangor brings the system to its knees - a reality of the non-politicised, technically accurate number which is only 1.5 percent.
Rivers are our main source of water and most times rainfall keeps our dams full. Along with all land-based resources (forests, rock and minerals, etc), water/rivers are a state matter.
Morally speaking every state is responsible for safeguarding this resource and ensuring every household gets clean drinkable water. The legalities of it are of course not as simple as that.
The rivers providing water for the Klang Valley all originate in Selangor. The 1974 agreement making a new "Federal city within a state" provided for KL to continue being supplied by Selangor’s water assets.
KL’s few small (and relatively insignificant) treatment plants get their raw water piped in from ‘cleaner’ upstream locations in Selangor.
Ensuring rivers stay clean - whose job is it?
Sungai Selangor is polluted by discharges and effluents from factories, workshops, chemical plants, etc discharging either directly to the rivers, or through drains.
Drains are by design intended to carry only storm (rain) water, but through mismanagement, lack of enforcement and plain negligence become a conduit for pollutants from far and wide to reach rivers.
Pengurusan Air Selangor Sdn Bhd (AS) manages the raw water intakes and treatment plants (including those in KL), while the river basins come under Lembaga Urus Air Selangor (Lusas).
Luas is a Selangor statutory body, while today’s AS is the outcome (in Selangor) of a decade’s worth of reorganisation since water reform was nationally introduced via a constitutional amendment in 2005.
The reform which some would argue remains incomplete - nevertheless, the crux of this article lies in an area untouched by that reform agenda, ie industrial pollution occurring on lands draining into rivers and falling under a mix of jurisdictions. Luas is tasked to navigate through that complexity to safeguard "unpolluted" raw water supply.
Meanwhile AS has no control over the river basin, and as the consumer-facing entity has to be the "bearer of bad news" each time supply gets interrupted.
Through all the contentious debate and finger-pointing, AS soldiers on to restart treatment plants and restore supply to homes and businesses alike, meanwhile providing regular public updates. Let us not shoot the messenger, but instead laud their toil and diligence.
It is the state authority (ie, legal power structures built around agencies basically answerable to Selangor’s menteri besar) who must address the issue of why Luas is unable to guarantee unpolluted raw water for AS to process. Is this caused by Luas' shortcomings or is it due to administrative kinks within the state machinery?
A bit of ‘federal vs state’... again?
The Sungai Selangor flows mainly through two local government jurisdictions namely Majlis Daerah Hulu Selangor (MDHS) and Majlis Daerah Kuala Selangor (MDKS), both district councils administering "lesser-developed" parts of Selangor.
This river basin suffers the "misfortune" of a small portion (a few tributaries) flowing through Rawang - a mukim under Majlis Perbandaran Selayang (MPS) and unfortunately a hotbed of industrial pollution by legal factories discharging illegally (outside of compliance parameters), and illegal premises typically occupying agricultural land with zero formal infrastructure.
What legal powers and avenues does Selangor’s state authority have at its disposal to ensure the success of Luas' efforts? And what about the federal government which governs KL through its Federal Territories Ministry?
If Selangor fails to get Luas and MPS to work together to regulate river pollution, does its detrimental impact on KL’s water supply give Putrajaya justification to intervene?
Role of local authority
At the frontline, it is always local authorities both district and municipal who are empowered and responsible to monitor all business premises and to act against those which flout the laws - regardless whether federal, state or local laws. At least that’s how things should go by the book, but this is typically compromised by inefficiency, corruption and patronage.
The laws only call for practicably achievable performance, nothing more. Industries depending on the terms of their respective permits/licenses have permissible ceiling concentrations for their effluents.
For example, a premise generating oily wastes regulated to Standard A of the EQA (Industrial Effluent) Regulations,2009 can discharge 1 mg/L (basically, one part per million) of oil/grease. A more leniently regulated premise downstream of water treatment intakes may follow Standard B and be allowed ten parts per million.
It is these standards that MPS or any local authority must enforce with the help of federal "technical agencies" such as Jabatan Alam Sekitar (JAS).
In the first place, the local authority is always the planning authority which approves (or rejects) having a factory in any locality. It is also the premise licensor who can terminate or refuse renewal of a license to operate, and prosecute (or even close down and demolish) the unlicensed ones.
Irrespective of which standard being mandated, any oil-generating premise must install and maintain an oily water separator consistently meeting the effluent discharge standard.
Oil/grease recovered by these separators is temporarily stockpiled as scheduled waste, which must then be ‘disposed’ of, ie, further treated or incinerated at prescribed premises to render it into non-harmful form before its "final disposal", for example as inert ash in landfill.
A long standing issue is that prescribed premises belong to an "exclusive" club of companies licensed to collect, transport and dispose of the scheduled wastes, giving rise to a situation where fees are ridiculously high to the extent of jeopardising the economic viability of many small industries. There is no competitive market for scheduled waste disposal services.
Needless to say, many waste-generators have been circumventing the regulations or attempting to minimise the quantities that they pay to dispose of.
They also have their tricks for when the monitoring authority shows up at the door, for example purposely increasing the effluent water flow rate to "dilute" pollutant concentrations. Invariably such circumvention and dodgery of surveillance lead to more and more contaminants ending up in our rivers.
Role of federal and state governments
It is obvious that our national scheduled waste management model is unsustainable in the long term. With some political will (just as we have seen in water reform) our federal government can create a more equitable business environment in which industries can be profitable yet compliant to environmental regulations while helping to grow the national GDP.
Yet industrial waste and the apparent inability of state agencies to stop these going into rivers is not the only problem affecting our rivers. There are also malfunctioning sewage treatment plants which fail to meet the discharge standards and agricultural runoff which in our country remains relatively unregulated.
Cumulatively and over time the threats to our drinking water supply can only escalate.
Going back to the question asked earlier on the federal government’s "locus standi" to intervene in Selangor - do the FT minister and agencies under him undertake any such interventions, which the public might be less aware of?
Klang Valley coordination - nothing new
In the 1980s these coordinating structures were created:
Klang Valley Regional Planning Council (KLRPC) chaired by prime minister, with menteri besar of Selangor as deputy.
Klang Valley Regional Development Committee (KLRDC) jointly chaired by the state secretary of Selangor and chief secretary of FT Ministry.
Klang Valley Planning Secretariat (KVPS) acting as secretariat to the aforementioned.
Collectively they were meant to synchronise policies and strategies for development and infrastructure across the Klang Valley, working under the ultimate authority of the prime minister.
The definition of "Klang Valley" also underwent a metamorphosis, but after the turn of the century came to encompass 10 municipalities, ie Kuala Lumpur, Putrajaya, and two city councils (PJ and Shah Alam) plus six municipal councils in Selangor.
The major development milestone of that period was the launching of the government’s Economic Transformation Programme (ETP). Needless to say, those coordinating structures for our ‘KL/Klang Valley National Key Economic Area’ evolved in ways which are too complicated to address here.
Whatever transitions occurred, it was always incumbent upon both federal and Selangor governments to ensure that coordination mechanisms remained effective.
Yet something seems to be missing, which manifests itself not only in our water supply dilemma but also in other problems we face, eg the flash floods which occur with increasing regularity.
Getting some basics right - urgently
Granted this will not be the last round of water disruptions - it will surely happen again by reason/s other than river pollution - but for now, let us regard this as the actionable priority.
Allow me to propose a pathway in rather simple terms:
Appoint an independent commission to get at the root causes of Luas' and the Selangor local authorities’ systemic failures in safeguarding raw water sources (starting perhaps with MPS and MPKj - Majlis Perbandaran Kajang)
Where the failures are due to malfeasance or dereliction of duty, recommend disciplinary action. Where due to poor leadership or motivation, recommend performance improvement methods. Where due to ineffective interfaces or bureaucracy, recommend organisational restructuring.
Examine working interfaces to federal agencies such as JAS, JPS (Jabatan Pengairan dan Saliran), Span (Suruhanjaya Perkhidmatan Air), etc. Conceptualise joint programs for proactive risk identification, assessment and monitoring.
Examine the role/complicity of Land and District Offices (which also operate under the state authority’s command) in the proliferation of illegal factories, eg in the area of syarat nyata ("express condition" of land use).
Make the independent commission’s findings public.
Create an accountable implementing body, perhaps modelled after the 1980s structure of the KVPS and its ‘parent councils.
Longer-term safeguards to our national water security can surely be contemplated, likely requiring law reforms. Making a market-driven "level playing field" for scheduled waste management (as alluded to earlier) would surely be one of them.
Likewise, the apex spatial planning policies under the National Physical Planning Council which should be looking at relocating industries away from rivers, establishing inviolable watersheds and catchment forests never to be logged or developed, and such like.
There is much that can be legislated in future for our national water security - but it is no excuse for not embarking immediately, today, on a concrete action plan well-grounded in current laws which is simply about making existing agencies and institutions do what they are supposed to do.