Articles / Newsletter

Plugging the leaks
Date 08-Jan-2017 | Category | Author Christina Chin

AFTER folks in the Klang Valley suffered a major water disruption in the run-up to Christmas recently, Raub residents are bracing for water cuts in the new year. The country’s water woes never seem to run dry. But the Energy, Green Technology and Water Ministry’s (KeTTHA) new secretary-general and water expert Datuk Seri Dr Zaini Ujang, is looking to plug the holes.

Assuring Malaysians that the ministry is working hard to achieve water security for the country, he says water demand management is a key factor to ensure efficiency, equality and sustainability, in the domestic, industrial and agricultural sectors.

KeTTHA, he says, already has an integrated water demand management action plan in place. Measures include:

> The mandatory use and labelling of water efficient products.

> Intensive enforcement to overcome water theft.

> The use of alternative water resources.

> Water efficient audit of big consumers.

> Research and development.

> Efficient use of raw water resources in all economic sectors.

> Ensuring that all water operators achieve their KPI which includes reducing their non-revenue water.

A nature enthusiast, whose contributions to the fields of water supply, sewage, river rehabilitation and industrial ecology are well documented, Dr Zaini understands the importance of water security.

He recently completed his 100 days in office after 33 years in the education sector. The former Education Ministry secretary-general II and Higher Education Ministry secretary-general, holds the distinction of becoming the country’s youngest vice-chancellor when he held the position at Universiti Teknologi Malaysia at the age of 43 nine years ago.

He joined KeTTHA on Aug 5 last year, and says he’s “enjoying learning” the ropes. But the father-of-four from Negri Sembilan is being humble. This is familiar terrain. With a solid background in chemical and environmental engineering, the award-winning academician has bagged accolades for his outstanding scientific research including the Malaysia Water Award 2004 (Research), the Outstanding Young Malaysian Award (Academic leadership) in 2004 and the Gold Medal from the IPTA Expo on Research & Development in 2005.

“KeTTHA gives me an opportunity to contribute to the nation. I work very closely with Minister Datuk Seri Dr Maximus Ongkili and his deputies. We discuss and argue on many issues.

“It’s very exciting. Some policies and measures have been implemented, but there are more in the pipeline.”

It comes as no surprise that the prestigious Merdeka Award’s first recipient for the category of Outstanding Scholastics Achievement in 2009 is an avid reader. His book collection though, is still less than a million, he quips, tongue firmly-in-cheek. Those who have been to his house say books line the walls but Dr Zaini is also passionate about horseback riding, jungle trekking, cycling and of course – water.

More reservoirs

Water security, says Dr Zaini, is dependant on where we get our water resources from. We’re 90% dependant on our rivers yet fresh water extraction in Malaysia is less than 2%. Ninety-eight per cent is wasted through evaporation, and groundwater, and discharged into the sea. So, if we can increase the extraction to even 10%, we’ll have a lot of water resources, he points out.

“KeTTHA is working closely with other related authorities. We’re using off-river storage and through investment by Water Asset Management Company (PAAB), we’re improving our treatment systems. New plants are being built to ensure reliability and adequacy of water supply.

“And, most importantly, we’re going to build and use more service reservoirs in cities and housing estates. Kota Baru, for example, has only three service reservoirs,” he says, adding that striking a balance between flood mitigation and storage of raw water supply is crucial to prevent flooding while keeping water in our catchments.

River pollution

The three main causes of river pollution are household sewage (i.e. from toilets, bathrooms and kitchens); untreated grey water from commercial businesses like restaurants and night markets; and treated industrial wastewater, Dr Zaini explains.

In peninsular Malaysia, only sewage from households are tapped into our public sewer network. Grey water and treated industrial waste go straight into the river. This is uncommon in developed countries where water resources and rivers are clean. Ideally, the three sources should be collected and sent to municipal sewage treatment plants.

There’s no concerted effort by the authorities to channel grey water to sewage treatment plants but no one wants to pay to do it otherwise, he shrugs. The local authorities can, and should, make this mandatory because they issue the operating licence and approve building plans. Some old houses and villages are still not connected to the public sewer network, so their grey water also goes straight into the rivers.

The challenge ahead

Ensuring the reliability of our water supply is a must, he says. We rely so much on rivers yet we aren’t optimising their yield. Water and sewerage services are heavily subsidised sectors. That’s the main challenge for environmental sustainability. Capital expenditures are high, he says. For example, capital expenditures for sewer network and sewage treatment plants in Ipoh and Kajang Phase 2 are RM2bil and RM1.5bil, respectively.

Who’ll bear the investment cost? he asks.

The government currently provides grant for water-resourse-assets (CAPEX), and subsidised annual operating expenditures (OPEX) through Indah Water Konsortium (IWK).

“The lack of industrial financial sustainability must be tackled. Low tariffs, high operating costs and dated technology are hurdles to overcome.”

Most important, he feels, is to get all states on board with the liberalisation and restructuring of the country’s water sector under the Water Services Industry Act 2006 (WSIA).

Limited coverage of treated and clean water due to remoteness, difficult terrain, poor infrastructure and low population density, must be overcome. The loss of some RM2.5bil in non-revenue water (NRW) must also be addressed, he says.

“It’s the way forward. We must ensure financial sustainability. Our water and sewer networks, and treatment plant capacity, must be expanded through infrastructure investment and technology.

“Efforts to increase efficiency and productivity of water and sewerage services while strengthening the regulatory framework, have to be carried out,” he says, stressing on the need for a new approach to water resource development like downstream dams, barrages and coastal reservoirs.

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