GEORGE TOWN: When taps suddenly ran dry in Penang and Kedah on Sunday, Charles Santiago took it as a sign.
The National Water Services Commission (SPAN) chairman said a greater degree of “interstate water resource distribution in times of crisis” was a must for the well-being of Malaysia as a whole.
“It is a sign for states like Penang to restart talks with Perak,” he said, adding that households were badly inconvenienced and businesses lost millions of ringgit when the water supply stopped without warning for a day.
He said while dams were drying in some states, most of Perak’s dams were full to the point of being at above normal capacity despite the current dry weather.
“On one side, there are deficits. On the other side, there are surpluses to the extent that much freshwater is flowing out to sea (in Perak). So, it is time for mutually beneficial interstate water resource distribution in times of crisis to be worked out,” he said.
As of yesterday, the Sultan Azlan Shah Dam in Ulu Kinta, the main water source for Ipoh, had an above-normal depth reading of 245.07m; this dam’s fullness alert threshold is 246.5m.
This led to large amounts of raw water being allowed to flow into Sungai Kinta which, according to data from the Natural Resources, Environment and Climate Change Ministry, was showing normal to above normal depths almost throughout its stretch. Sungai Kinta flows into Sungai Perak and then out to sea.
The readings at other dams in Perak showed no drastic drop in their levels.
Santiago said raw water resources belonged to the respective states and were not under federal jurisdiction.
“But with the large excess of raw water flowing out to sea from Perak even during dry weather, we hope to explore how it can be distributed to other states.
“We must also see how Perak will benefit as the state deserves to earn revenue from this resource. Perak shares borders with Kedah, Penang and even Selangor, so there are possibilities for revenue and regional water security to be shared,” he added.
Santiago was commenting on the sudden drying of taps in Kedah and Penang that affected over a million people when a fault in the barrage of Sungai Muda – the main raw water resource for Kedah and Penang – drained the river uncontrollably out to sea.A river barrage is a dam with many gates. Its function is to slow down a river’s flow to sea and keep water levels upriver high for irrigation and water intake.
The sensor in one of those gates failed in the dead of the night and by sunrise on Sunday, Sungai Muda had fallen from its normal level of 3m to as low as 50cm.
The supply was restored by yesterday afternoon, but many businesses incurred losses while people in both states went on a panic-buying spree of drinking water.
Santiago said he had called for a detailed study of what happened at Sungai Muda’s barrage to determine the error and stop it from happening again.
“There was a sensor failure, but there should have been a second and third level warning. Sungai Muda should not have been able to go so low without a general alarm at every level being sounded.“If we don’t manage water well, investors nationwide may get fed up and leave,” said Santiago, who is the former Klang MP. He became SPAN chairman in March.
He added that he was going to Penang and Kedah on Thursday to take a look at water security in the northern region himself.
At Lahar Tiang’s Sungai Muda water intake point on mainland Penang yesterday, Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow appealed to SPAN to examine how the mishap with the barrage gate happened.
“We want this investigation to be conducted because it is not only 400,000 water accounts in Penang being affected but also about 200,000 in Kedah.
“SPAN needs to do the investigation to ensure it will never happen again,” Chow said.
He said he was glad that the water feed from Sungai Muda for Penang was restored within 24 hours and that Sungai Dua’s water treatment plant was producing treated water at 90% capacity as of yesterday morning.
On the Sungai Perak Raw Water Transfer Scheme, Chow said Natural Resources, Environment and Climate Change Minister Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad would visit Penang next month to help restart negotiations with Perak.
A plan first devised in 2011, the water transfer scheme involves building a 14.8km water tunnel from the upper reaches of Sungai Perak. The water will flow into Sungai Ijok and then into Sungai Kerian, which enters Penang where the raw water can be taken up for treatment.
The scheme is similar to the existing Johor-to-Melaka and Pahang-to-Selangor raw water transfer schemes.