Fighting clean

  • Nation
  • Sunday, 24 Apr 2016

In conjunction with Earth Day on Friday – when Malaysia signed the United Nations’ COP21 environmental agreement in New York – Natural Resources and Environment Minister Datuk Seri Dr Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar talks to Sunday Star about solving Malaysia’s water woes and championing nature.

ON a mission to solve Malaysia’s perennial water woes, Natural Resources and Environment Minister Datuk Seri Dr Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar made Sunday Star’s front page on April 3, promising a new law to govern our precious water resources. The Bill, which will standardise water management processes nationwide, will include recommendations for states to gazette all their water catchment and water sources.

But that’s not the only legal change he’s bringing. Eight months in office, he’s been busy sharpening the “teeth” of environmental regulations that no longer bite. Armed with a slew of new, tougher laws, he means business.

A firm believer that development and environment must go together, the 70-year-old who keeps clued in on the buzzing social media scene via his officers and family, says the ministry is all for quality of living. He dreams of a clean, environmentally-friendly Malaysia without needing to drag people to court.

“We must understand the value of the environment and realise that we’re all responsible to protect it,” he insists.

Describing himself as an emotional poet whose inspiration strikes especially hard when he’s down, he shares how a Majlis Amanah Rakyat (Mara) study loan rejection years ago resulted in a poem which he still keeps. He hopes to publish an anthology of his compositions but for now, the focus is on creating a greener nation for future generations.

Last year, 42% of our 477 rivers were either slightly polluted or polluted. What’s happening?

The majority of our rivers are still clean. Compared to 2014, the number of slightly polluted and polluted rivers dropped by 17 and 14 respectively. If the drought is so severe as to affect water reserves, the pollution might get worse as pollutants discharged into the water bodies cannot be diluted and the flow might become slower or stagnant.

What is the ministry doing about it?

Industries and sewerage treatment systems must comply with our discharge standards. The public are our eyes and ears. We’re making the “guided self-regulatory approach” mandatory for industries.

They must have an environmental agenda at all levels of the organisation so that everyone from top to bottom is responsible. A competent person to ensure that discharge or emissions do not negatively impact the environment must be appointed.

All sewerage treatment system operators must monitor and carry out regular maintenance checks. We can’t afford to shut down our drinking water treatment plants because of high ammonia concentration levels in the river. Indah Water Konsortium (IWK) has over 6,000 sewage treatment plants nationwide. Of that, almost 5,000 need to be upgraded this year.

The Government must now decide whether to grant IWK a moratorium.

They haven’t done it because the capital investment needed is RM6bil. These plants were built before the Environmental Quality Sewerage Regulation 2009 was passed.

A lot of money is involved but water discharged into our rivers can cause pollution so we must improve the quality. Water rates are already so cheap, so please stop complaining and pay your IWK bill.

Tell us about the National Water Resources Bill.

We have the National Water Resources Policy but it’s very general and it’s not binding on the states which controls the forests, rivers and water. So, we need a law.

Water protection falls under the concurrent list (authority of both state and federal governments) but because of politics, the Federal Government will never be able to fully enforce its will on the states.

This law, to be tabled next year, gives us a water management template so we can tell the states: “Listen, we have a law now. Please follow it.”

It’s not that we don’t want the states to earn money or develop their economy but we want sustainable use of forest products. My forestry director-general is studying every inch of forest taken by the state or by anybody.

Forests cleared should be replaced by land at least five times bigger than the original area because a sustainable forest sustains water catchments. The early settlements used rivers as a source of life. We take it for granted. We’ve become wasteful, polluting instead of protecting.

Luckily, we’re still able to undo the damage – but at a cost. We have had to introduce so many programmes just to restore the rivers to become a source of life again and make it safe for people to enjoy.

Our environmental control is not good enough. That’s why we’re losing water. Simple. Our people don’t observe the law. They don’t protect the rivers. We’ll look into increasing our water catchment buffer zones but land is under the state authority so we have to engage them.

Are we building more dams?

Let’s look at this in a comprehensive way. First, we need to consider whether building a dam or rehabilitating the old ones is beneficial and cost effective. When you build a dam, you flood several areas. You must study how these areas, which include forest reserves, are going to be impacted.

Whenever a dam or mini-hydro project is to be built, my forestry director-general must be involved in the planning to make sure we don’t lose our forests. We have 54% of forested areas that act like sponges to retain water but it’s depleting because of economic activities and development.

We’re losing storage capacity. We cannot compare water management in Malaysia with Singapore or Hong Kong. These countries don’t use forests as a means of developing the country economically and socially. We use it to move forward. So, we must use a different model to manage our water.

People talk about protecting the rivers but look at how much rainwater is wasted. We retain less than 20% of our annual rainfall. That’s a lot of fresh water lost. We’re looking at retaining rainwater but this is not yet a government policy.

I’d like every township to have their own water storage because it’s cheaper to harvest rainwater than to channel it to another district or state.

We’re identifying strategic locations nationwide to have water storage but we’re not ignoring the rivers. We can have water storage by digging a huge pond, as simple as that.

Besides retaining water, it can be adapted for multiple uses including generating power and for commercial and recreational use so it’s not wasting space. I’ll look into a holistic way to make sure that Malaysia will not suffer because of insufficient water like what Australia went through in 1995.

Our average water consumption is too high. We must regulate it – perhaps by installing showers that don’t feel like torrential rain, to reduce your bath water. The mechanism must be institutionally introduced rather than voluntarily.

Water’s a big priority for you. Why?

If COP21 (21st conference of the parties of the United Nations Convention on Climate Change) is unsuccessful, island cities like Christmas Island, Maldives, Seychelles – all the Pacific islands, will be flooded. And in 2100, 20% of land mass in Malaysia will be flooded because of melting icecaps.

Last year, Kelantan, Terengganu and Pahang were flooded. (But) there wasn’t enough water in Selangor, Johor and Sarawak, and the northern states were dry.

These happened just a few months apart. See the paradox? We must make sure that the generation to come has the necessary infrastructure for water security so they will not blame us for not doing enough.

I told my director-general, National Hydraulic Research Institute of Malaysia, Drainage and Irrigation Department, Forestry Department and Environment Department: “Show me what we can do to assure future sustainability first. We talk about money later.”

We must be prepared for bad times. Climate change will happen.

Has Cameron Highlands recovered from the illegal clearing?

We don’t have authority to enter and carry out replanting and rehabilitation works. We need the state’s permission to enter. We’ve done some work but not as much as I would have liked. My ministry has the technical expertise but the state must assist.

There must be a dedicated area for planting. Strictly no planting on sensitive elevated areas. Divide the land into plots and assign it to genuine planters so the state can have better control over what goes into the rivers.

Only then you provide facilities and infrastructure like road access.

Calling for better bauxite mining regulations, the Red2Green protesters walked over 360km from Kuantan to Parliament to present its memorandum to you on March 28. Are you acting on it?

The memorandum is nothing new. The moment it happened, I got things moving. I was already talking about the mining, transportation, stockpile and port management because if a proper standard operating procedure had been in place, it wouldn’t have been so bad.

My ministry is in charge of coming up with the regulations. We’ve done it. We worked on having an integrated stockpile area, dedicated roads and port area, allowing only fully-covered lorries to prevent dust and spillage, the number of lorry trips and amount of bauxite allowed to be transported – we have the complete guideline but it is for the state and the other related ministries to implement.

I walk past the port and they say: “YB, the port management is all good.” But when I flew over it in my helicopter and took photographs, I saw spillage where they said there was no more. They haven’t done what I asked.

The Federal Government only makes policies and gives guidelines and technical advice. The rest must be done by the state. Licensing is by them.

Signing off: Dr Wan Junaidi’s parting words.
Signing off: Dr. Wan Junaidi's parting words.

You were previously Deputy Speaker and Deputy Home Minister. This portfolio is a different ballgame. How are you coping?

I was a policeman and a lawyer before. So my previous duties were not new. My current ministry is very technical so I’ve to put in much more effort to learn. It’s easy to love nature.

Managing and improving what had been damaged isn’t as easy. But I’m a fast learner and my retention’s not too bad. Because of my legal background, I came in and said: “Let’s look at all the laws.”

Everything must start with the law. Lord Denning (a foremost British judge and jurist) said your rights end when the rights of others begin.

The law tells you where it begins and ends. That’s why you need it. If people don’t understand why they shouldn’t throw rubbish into the river, we must guide them with the law. And if they don’t listen, they must be punished.

The Environmental Quality Act 1974 – currently under review to strengthen our pollution prevention and control efforts – cannot handle what we have now especially when people become smarter, trading between the narrow margins of right and wrong.

When I joined the ministry, I signed off on the legislation giving the Environment Department director-general power to ask for an Environmental Impact Assessment report if he considers a project sensitive and likely to cause pollution. It’s a very powerful law that my predecessors were afraid of signing because it could hurt the economy.

Imagine if every time you want to develop something, you need a report. But my only consideration is protecting the environment. If companies want to make money, they must spend a bit on the environment.

Growing up in Kampung Pendam, Sarawak, was the love for nature instilled at a young age?

My father was the first conservationist I know. He would bring injured birds and animals home, treat and release them into the wild. My grandmother said: “Don’t cut the tree. It’s not for you. It’s for the birds to perch. And when they do, you’ll get pahala (reward).”

So it’s how I am. My three children are like that too. I had to convince my second daughter that chicken, goats and cows are created by God for us to consume. She didn’t want to eat lamb because she said piercing into the cute animal with steel and grilling it over a fire was cruel.

With a collection of over 7,000 books, do you still find time to read?

I’m still reading but no more novels since 2000. I read the heavy stuff – government documents and political, economic and financial books. I read about what’s happening in the world.

My seven-year-old granddaughter is like me. She’s already reading Percy Jackson. Quite thick. And she speaks like a politician. She calls Donald Trump a “modern Hitler”, asking me why he doesn’t read and learn from Mandela. Can you believe it?

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