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Cleaning the unseen

Indah Water Konsortium Sdn Bhd (IWK) chief executive officer Datuk Abdul Kadir Mohd Din speaking to The Star during an interview at IWKs office in Kuala Lumpur recently. Sia Hong Kiau/The Star

Indah Water Konsortium Sdn Bhd (IWK) chief executive officer Datuk Abdul Kadir Mohd Din speaking to The Star during an interview at IWKs office in Kuala Lumpur recently. Sia Hong Kiau/The Star

IT is a job that not everyone dreams of doing, but somebody has to do it.

The business of processing 5,096,030 cubic metres of sewage or domestic wastewater generated by Malaysians nationwide everyday is no easy feat.

But all Datuk Abdul Kadir Mohd Din, the former chief executive officer of Indah Water Konsortium Sdn Bhd (IWK), wants is a bit more appreciation from Malaysians for the work that the national sewerage company carries out.

That, and for them to stop throwing foreign objects into the sewer line, as it could choke up pipes and damage the system.

After seven years of helming IWK as its CEO, Abdul Kadir’s employment contract ended on Wednesday, leaving the company’s chief operating officer Prof Mohd Haniffa Abdul Hamid to serve as acting CEO.

Passionate and concerned about the murky business he had to deal with, Abdul Kadir recently divulged to Sunday Star that incidents of blockages, no thanks to such dumping, are on the rise, causing IWK to cough up RM26mil last year for clearing up works.

“We are closely linked to the people, but we are distant in their minds,” the 58-year-old laments.

“It is only when we are gone that people will realise they need the sewerage system.

“That is not a priority for them because there are no problems so far that resulted in them vacating their houses due to faulty toilets.

“We are the sewerage doctors.

“We clean the unseen. In life, you don’t see your doctor everyday.

“If you see us, then there is something wrong with your system,” he quips.

True to their catchy tagline, “We Clean The Unseen”, which is also embellished on a glass wall in his office, Abdul Kadir feels that Malaysians have taken for granted the hidden, albeit essential, role that IWK plays.

Nevertheless, Abdul Kadir, from Ampang, Selangor, takes pride in the fact that IWK manages an efficient service for 23 million Malaysians connected to the system and envisions a more advanced system for the future – one that generates income from the domestic waste we flush down the toilet!

The following are questions from an interview with Sunday Star.

You are a civil engineer by profession. How did you find yourself in the business of processing waste? Was it a choice?

I have spent a total of 12 years in IWK. I left after five years, but later returned for another seven years. It wasn’t a choice, but it was built up over time. I graduated in civil engineering, but I joined a consultancy specialising in water. That is where my interest in this field developed. When I reflected on what the company does, I realised that our country lacked good sewerage facilities. That was when I went into it. I forced myself to learn. I told the company I wanted to learn about sewerage. I was in Britain for a year and a half, just doing projects related to sewerage. I told my employer to assign me to as many projects as possible. I worked on weekends to gain as much knowledge that I could. Our people should enjoy better facilities. When you go overseas, you enjoy their modern and efficient facilities. But when you come back, you feel sad. Why are people still using septic tanks and pour flush toilets (where users pour water to flush)? Our country is prospering, but we still have some areas with poor sanitation. It is sad to say that the people here are not ready. We have to change our mentality first before we can appreciate better facilities. When IWK was formed, my colleague introduced it to me and since the Government sponsored my studies, I thought it was payback time. I joined IWK and contributed my knowledge in the sewerage industry. I have a passion for this. Our country should be a leader in this area and create a water and wastewater hub for developing countries. We should develop our own technology. That’s the vision we should have. We should rebrand sewage treatment plants. They should be named One Green Resource Centre instead of Sewage Treatment Plants.

How would you describe the cases of blockages in the system that IWK has to deal with?

The number is increasing every year. What saddens me is that if it chokes, our guys can come and go, but it is you who suffers. IWK has been given the mandate to manage the country’s sewerage system and it is considered as a public asset. But if you abuse the system, you are the one to suffer. We work 24 hours a day and seven days a week, but if the sewage overflows because of blockages at say 8pm, you have to bear with it. We can’t repair it at night. This is because of safety measures. There is methane gas in the system and it can lead to explosions and people can die. People fail to realise the safety measures we have to take. People don’t understand. There should only be liquid and not solids (in the system).

So this all boils down to the attitude of people?

Yes, exactly. They have to be civilised and civic-minded. In developed countries, people demand for the system. In countries like Germany and the Netherlands, their people pay and demand for it as they want to enjoy the benefits it brings. Over here, we have first-class facilities but third-class mentality. The tidak apa attitude is still prevalent. They don’t care because it doesn’t hit them. One sad thing which was quoted to me was, “You are too efficient, IWK.” You have no problems with your toilet right? We seldom hear that people move out of the house due to sanitation problems because when you flush, it disappears. Unlike water and electricity where you physically see the product, for ours, it is best for you not to see (any of it). My first priority is to ensure everyone’s health, safety and comfort. You flush your toilet everyday and there is no problem. The second would be looking after the public sewerage system. But if there are problems such as backflow and sewage overflow at public manholes, the root causes are blockages. If the public has better attitude and civic awareness, IWK would have lower maintenance costs.

How much is IWK’s operating costs?

We need a new tariff to support our operating costs. The IWK fees have not increased, but has reduced four times over 21 years. Our operational cost is more than our revenue. IWK is a 100% government-owned company. The tariff is regulated and at present for domestic users, it is RM8 per month and RM2 for low-cost houses. Even kampung houses, where some may even have a swimming pool, they only pay RM3 a month. Such prices may be applicable back then, but not now. Some people ask me what is the actual cost. It’s like this. Just imagine, the average volume of waste water produced by one person per day is 225 litres. In one household of five people, they produce about 1,000 litres a day. How much would it cost for you to throw out 1,000 litres a day? How much would it cost for you to put it all in bottles? If you use 1.5-litre bottles, you will need 667 bottles to be thrown out of your house everyday. Renting a lorry to transport them away costs about RM3,000 a month. That is equivalent to RM36,000 a year. Now, you are paying RM96 a year for sewerage services provided by IWK. Not even RM100. That shows how much the Government subsidises the public in developing the sewerage system. And yet, some people do not want to be connected to the public sewerage system and protect the environment. I can conclude that it is not a question of affordability, but a matter of priority in life. This is because they can pay for handphones and paid TV, but they ignore the must-haves such as sewerage. I wonder what would happen if there is no one to efficiently manage toilets in this concrete jungle.

What are the details of the proposed new tariff?

We proposed to the Government to have a volumetric-based sewerage tariff. So you pay according to how much you use. For example, you pay less if you use the half-flush option. Toilets are on top of the list of usages at home. You don’t cook every hour. Second is laundry. If you use more, then you pay more. In that manner, we can also promote water conservation. Hopefully, the Government will agree to this as we move towards becoming a developed, industrialised country. It is also fair for commercial industries. They are currently paying two portions – one is based on an annual value of their properties while another is based on their water consumption. What does this annual value have to do with consumption? Last time yes, it was relevant, but now, no.

The Energy, Green Technology and Water Ministry has agreed to the idea of a volumetric system. But when will it be introduced?

I don’t know when exactly it will be introduced. If you ask me personally, anytime is the right time. The sooner, the better, so we can recover our costs. At the moment, the Government is giving IWK compensation for our financial gaps. No such business will survive like this. Affording the IWK fees isn’t a problem for people. Our general public, each have a handphone, with some owning two or three and their monthly charges would easily cost more than RM8 per month.

There was a pioneer project to have a single billing system for water supply and sewerage services in Labuan. Will it be extended to the rest of the nation?

I strongly believe that it will be extended nationwide and this is line with the Government’s aspirations, which are underlined in the Water Services Industry Act (WSIA 2006). We have tested it and it was well accepted by the public, therefore we will implement the joint-billing at other states.

Is the testing period still on? Which states are next?

We are looking at Johor and Malacca; they are open to the joint-billing idea. My hope is that it can be done by next year, but it is difficult to estimate because it involves many parties. Hopefully other states will jump on the bandwagon. Subject to government approval, it will be expanded to a nationwide scale in stages.

Are there any proposed measures to stop people from dumping trash into the system?

We have to go back to awareness campaigns, but it will cost money. IWK cannot go at it alone. We will need help from all sectors, including ministries and community leaders.

Are there any plans to upgrade the facilities at IWK?

Yes, we need a capital expenditure of RM52bil for the next 30 years. The Government has taken care of certain aspects which is included under the Greater Kuala Lumpur plan. But the speed of change is not fast enough to catch up with developments. Our sewerage system is not 100% connected to everyone. Some rural areas in Malaysia are still using primitive sanitation systems and they may not want to be connected to the sewer line.

How big is that population?

Currently, about 70% of the population is connected to IWK’s sewerage system, mainly in urban areas. Under the 11th Malaysia Plan, there are proposals to increase the connectivity to rural areas.

What was your biggest challenge as IWK’s CEO?

In any company, dollars and cents count. Dealing with the financial part is very challenging, especially ensuring we have reserves. I have to manage a situation where our operational cost is more than our revenue. Every time there is an electricity tariff hike, we get hit. Apart from that, I have to ensure that there is no failure in the system, including blockages. It is also a challenge to change the mindset of the people. We operate a total of 10,000 plants including the public communal septic tanks and we have very high incidences of theft. Once we spent about RM8mil to replace parts because people were stealing them. We have since devised a method to reduce such incidents by installing security equipment to deter them. For the past 21 years, there hasn’t been any incident of water-borne diseases generated by the failure of the system operated by IWK. Despite our constraints, we managed to safeguard public health. In that sense, we passed the test. But as costs keep increasing, the gap gets larger and larger. These are things that people should realise. If the system chokes, does it cost RM8 to fix it?

If you could have things completely your way, what would you change or do about our sewerage system?

I believe in technology. If there is enough money, I would work towards getting the right technology that can benefit the rakyat as technology will offer convenience in terms of the size and aesthetics of the plant, and returns to the rakyat and of course, lower costs to sustain it. I have always mooted the idea of zero-waste management and promoting waste to resource, and then converting waste to wealth. If we have the right technology, the by-products of processed waste is not merely waste, but “gold”. There are three by-products in the form of liquid, solid and gas. We can sell all of them. Currently, industries use potable or drinkable water in their operations. They don’t need potable water, for industrial use. If I can supply this second grade water to industries, then potable water reserves will be higher. At the moment, if you gather all my treated effluent water, it can replace 25% of potable water demand. This is quite a lot. Industries can get returns because they won’t be paying as much to water suppliers. Sectors like agriculture and landscape industries can use our treated effluents as it has nutrients to help plants grow healthily. This has been proven with the Port Dickson Municipal Council (MPPD). They have used IWK’s solid by-products and have claimed 50% savings on fertiliser costs. Part of the waste by-products can also be converted to biomass and energy. And this is the best part – I can generate and convert the waste to energy that can run my plant, all my vehicles and houses within a certain radius from treatment plants, can use the energy source at a lower rate. It can happen if I have the support. I have proposed this to the Government. Some officials believe it while, some don’t. But it has happened overseas. I have been dreaming about this for over 10 years. It has started happening slowly on a small scale, like in MPPD, Alor Star City Council (MBAS) and Kangar Municipal Council. My vision is that if I can generate income from all this, I think the sewerage services tariff for the people can be at a nominal rate. This is because it is the rakyat who goes to the toilet and contributes to the raw product, their investment must come back to them. Hopefully, one day it will happen and we will be on par with developed countries and become reference points for developing countries.

If there is something you would like to tell the public, what would it be?

I hope to change public perception of the sewerage industry so that they appreciate the services. We are closely linked to them, but we are distant in their minds. They should have a sense of ownership to enjoy the services and to be on par with developed countries. They should open their eyes and use it properly for the sake of the environment. Hopefully, they will support IWK and value our services because it is all operated by Malaysians and not everyone can do this job. Some can’t stand the sight of waste. Some may lose their appetite. Sewerage services are available 24/7. It is there. In this country, it is typical for people to appreciate you when you are needed. But when the situation improves, they forget all about you. People take things for granted. So the appreciation must be there.