KOTA KINABALU: With the effectiveness of Sabah's water officials constantly called into question by consumers, a revamp of the Water Department may be in the offing.
A recent meeting between Deputy Chief Minister Datuk Shahelmey Yahya, who is state Works Minister, and state Finance Minister Datuk Seri Masidi Manjun seems to indicate this.
Both leaders say there is a need for department officials to pull up their socks and tackle the frequent water supply issues.
"I do not think (financial issues are) the most critical," Masidi said when contacted on Sunday (March 26).
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"The issue is capacity both in terms of staffing and delivery to consumers.
"Both of us feel there's an urgent need to put the right people in the right place at all levels of the Water Department for better management and distribution of available water supply to consumers."
He added that Shahelmey, as the minister overseeing the Water Department, was looking into it.
When contacted, Shahelmey agreed that there was a need for department officials to be more proactive in tackling the festering problem of water shortages.
"Admittedly, we are facing challenging times. The immediate measures we have been taking to (address) the short supply of treated water is by sending water tankers to affected areas.
"However, that is not considered a real solution but just 'firefighting'. (We also do) water rationing to distribute the supply around," he said.
He added that his ministry was working closely with the Water Department to improve the situation.
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Consumers in Sabah highlight their water woes on social media on a daily basis.
From no water at all on weekends to low pressure on weekdays, they have constantly complained about the failure of the Water Department to provide a solution.
The problems plague residents of the city here and the greater area of west coast Sabah and to them, the state government's assurances that the problem would be tackled remain just promises.
Residents of housing estates, flats and condominiums appear to be the worst hit, with low water pressure at best and taps sometimes running dry for days at a stretch.
The issue hits harder during the fasting month.
Facebook user "MadamSue AbdGhani" said she missed having water flowing from her kitchen tap, which has been dry for two weeks.
She posted a photo of dishes piled in the sink with empty bottles nearby, saying she was forced to wash her plates with mineral water.
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"I buy five to seven bottles of minerals for daily use in the kitchen... (for) cooking and washing," she said, adding that she prayed for just enough water to do the dishes.
Officials have blamed leaking pipes, water theft by illegal squatter settlements and increased consumer demand for the water woes in the city as well as neighbouring districts of Tuaran, Penampang and Putatan, among others.
The battle against water theft by squatters cannot be won, an official familiar with the matter said.
A pilot prepaid system put in place a few years ago at a settlement in Pulau Gaya was seen as successful in earning revenue for the department, but water supply to the area was stopped without any reasons given. It is learnt that the system has since been abandoned.
The authorities have been urged to provide a proper prepaid water supply to squatter settlements.
"After decades, we have yet to find a solution to the squatter problem itself – at least in the meantime, make sure they pay for the water they (use)," the official said, adding that areas like Sepanggar here have large squatter settlements.
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State leaders are also questioning the Water Department's efficiency as engineers seem to have been grappling endlessly with the water crisis in the capital as well as major towns and districts.
On the squatter issue, Shahelmey said it was a "cat and mouse game" as the illegal connections would be rerouted almost as soon as they were cut by enforcement officers.
"This is a matter that needs continuous monitoring and enforcement.
"We have to look at more effective ways to tackle it," he added.
On the water shortage, Shahelmey said he had received many messages from the public and urged them to store water whenever they could.
He also said the Telibong Water Scheme 2 project, aimed at increasing water supply to Kota Kinabalu and adjacent areas, was almost ready but pipe-laying works still had to be done.
"The plant is to be completed by April but the pipe-laying work is pending. A target date has yet to be (fixed)," he said.