GEORGE TOWN: Despite mitigating efforts from the state government to improve the water in Sungai Pinang, it has remained one of the dirtiest and smelliest rivers in the country and continues to affect the livelihood of inshore fishermen.
Although the narrow river is only 3.5km, the six tributaries of Sungai Pinang drain a basin that is home to the second highest urban population in the country (after Kuala Lumpur), at about 2,500 people per sq km.
Such a scenario keeps the state government busy against the tide of waste that threatens to kill the river.
In 2000, it was labelled a Class 5 river, the worst level a river can be in terms of ecological and biological health.
By 2016, significant funds for clean-up efforts and the implementation of numerous regulations, which were met with frustration by certain segments of society, had resulted in the improvement of over 50% of the river to Class 2.
But closer to the river mouth, humanity’s filth is still pervasive.
“We stopped all chicken slaughtering at markets, so we have reduced organic pollution. Hawker stalls in nearly all food courts are equipped with grease traps to cut down on oily run-offs escaping into drains and into the river.
“Although this was inconvenient for some businesses, it has had a huge benefit on the river’s health,” said state environment committee chairman Datuk Seri S. Sundarajoo.
Since 2018, poultry for sale in Penang is only slaughtered at specific facilities that treat all waste water before being released into public waterways.
Market traders are made to collect the dressed birds from the slaughterhouses and sell them in chillers to maintain hygiene.
Since 2013, a comprehensive system of grease traps has been gradually installed beneath the wash basins of food court hawkers. These traps efficiently capture oily discharge from sullage, ensuring that contractors properly dispose of it.
However, Sundarajoo conceded that more needs to be done to make Sungai Pinang pristine.
“We need to educate and guide independent food sellers about the need for grease traps. We need to monitor workshops about the degree of care they practise to prevent oil and grease from entering the waterways.
“The Sungai Pinang basin encompasses some of the densest parts of George Town, with tens of thousands of homes and businesses, so there is much to do before we can see the river quality improve to better than Class 2,” he said.
A visit to the river by The Star recently showed that at high tide, a pleasant light green hue of seawater flowed in from the sea.
At low tide, a significant amount of food and plastic waste, including animal carcasses, can be seen near the river mouth.
Fisherman Sanusi Zakaria, 50, admitted that the river has become cleaner but bemoaned the plentiful rubbish flowing out with the low tide.
Sanusi, who has been a fisherman for over 20 years, knows the rubbish comes from irresponsible people.
“When you throw rubbish into the drain, of course it will eventually reach the river and then the sea,” he said.
Another fisherman, Haris Che Man, 56, said that after storms, more rubbish would flow out to sea, increasing the risk of damage to fishermen’s nets and boat propellers.
He urged the public to be more responsible and to refrain from littering.
State infrastructure committee chairman Zairil Khir Johari said since 2010, a log boom across the river has been the major strategy to stop much of the floating rubbish along Sungai Pinang from reaching the sea.
“We collect a tonne of floating rubbish at the log boom every day, no thanks to the lack of civic-mindedness of some people,” he said.
Zairil said the Penang River and Sea Pollution Task Force is in regular discussions with all agencies on how to tackle riverine pollution, on top of river beautification projects to foster public appreciation of the state’s waterways.
Zairil said based on the Water Quality Index of the Environment Department on Feb 20, some rivers in Penang have become the state’s pride, including Sungai Air Terjun in the Northeast District and Sungai Kechil at South Seberang Prai, which are Class 1 rivers (cleanest).
Class 2 rivers, he said, included Sungai Batu Feringghi, Sungai Ara in the Balik Pulau area and Sungai Kerian in South Seberang Prai.
He urged the public to report cases of pollution to DOE and local authorities such as the Penang Island City Council and the Seberang Prai City Council.