IN Malaysia, it’s never about the paucity of laws. It’s always about the lack of enforcement or reacting when it is too late.
The horrendous pollution of Sungai Kim Kim in Pasir Gudang, Johor, which caused toxic fumes to sicken people and force the closure of 111 schools, is a classic example of shoddy enforcement against blatant flouters of environmental laws.
Action was only taken when the authorities realised the gravity of the matter on March 7, after the fetid fumes nauseated children, causing 120 them to be admitted to hospitals.
But the river had been dead for quite a while, based on the stench emanating from it. According to Johor Malaysia Nature Society vice-president Vincent Chow, the pollution began some five years ago.
The Fire and Rescue Department’s initial checks on air samples taken near the river identified 15 types of chemicals, including hydrogen cyanide.
A massive clean-up operation on a 1.5km stretch of the river began last Wednesday by the Hazardous Materials Management Team (Hazmat), National Disaster Management Agency, police and armed forces.
As they removed bags of soil, sludge and polluted water under the Department of Environment’s supervision, the number of victims both in hospital and treated as outpatients nearly tripled from fewer than 1,000 to 2,775 by Friday.
Most of them displayed symptoms of
methane poisoning – difficulties in breathing, rapid heartbeat, severe headache, nausea and vomiting.
Fortunately, most of those warded were discharged from the hospitals by Sunday, leaving just 29 in stable condition.
All 111 schools, with a total enrolment of 30,000 students, still remain closed and Energy, Technology, Science, Climate Change and Environment Minister Yeo Bee Yin said the area would be monitored to see if more could be done to improve public safety.
So far, the police have nabbed nine people believed to be involved in the illegal dumping of hazardous wastes.
With the ongoing scrutiny on 254 factories by DoE teams and police blockades to prevent illegal movement of wastes, Sungai Kim Kim has certainly emerged as the country’s hot-button environmental issue.
Residents in the area have also lodged close to 80 police reports over the dumping of chemical wastes, including the latest discovery of seven plastic barrels of liquid found under a bridge near one of the closed schools.
There is much anger and public outrage over the man-made disaster but how long will this last? Like in the case of road transport and other sectors, where neglect in enforcement results in frequent tragedies, our memories are short.
Even within the Pasir Gudang constituency, lessons have not been learned from past
Effluent pollution from factories has been a recurrent problem over the past six years. DoE records show that 15 factory operators had been charged under Section 34 (b) of the Environmental Quality Act 1974 (EQA), for dumping scheduled wastes.
It is open knowledge that these cases are just the tip of the iceberg. The number of polluters who escape punishment either because of lax monitoring or corruption is anyone’s guess.
The arrest of a senior state DoE officer for accepting bribes two years ago by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) is an indicator of the problem.
Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who visited victims at the Sultan Ismail Hospital last week, said the government was considering strengthening the EQA.
In addition to the EQA, Malaysia already has a whole slew of environmental laws
– 38 statutes and ordinances, regulations and orders at state and federal levels.
But as identified under the Mid-Term Review of the 11th Malaysia Plan report last October, the current system of environmental governance is “fragmented, lacks coordination and hampered by incoherent policies”.
The report, which also recognised the challenge posed by different powers vested under the federal and state government agencies, stated that a newer EQA encompassing complete reforms and pooling resources across existing agencies and equipped with more powers, was needed to safeguard the environment.
Under the move, officers in all environment-related agencies would be equipped with technical expertise in climate and water resource modelling and forecasting; disaster risk management; sustainable natural resource management; environmental assessment; and spatial information of water catchments and river systems.
In addition to initiating crowd-sourced environment reporting, the report recommended harsher penalties against those who flout the laws for better deterrent.
Under Section 34B of the EQA, those found guilty of dumping scheduled wastes indiscriminately can be fined up to RM500,000 and jailed for five years.
On Monday, Inspector-General of Police Tan Sri Mohamad Fuzi Harun said the nine suspects arrested were being investigated under Sections 278, 284 and 326 of the Penal Code.
The first two carry relatively lighter penalties – a maximum fine of RM1,000 under Section 278; up to six months in jail or a fine of up to RM2,000 or both under Section 284. However, offenders under Section 326 can face up to 20 years’ jail, and are also liable to be fined and whipped.
Four years ago, only 33 of the country’s
477 rivers (or 7%) were categorised as polluted, under the Malaysia Environmental Quality Report issued by the then National Resources and Environment Ministry.
Another 168 were ranked as “slightly” polluted, while the remaining 276 rivers showed clean water quality index readings.
Last December, Deputy Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change Minister Isnaraissah Munirah Majilis told Parliament that the number of ailing rivers in the country had risen to 51 or 10.69%.
Rivers should rightly be regarded as the lifelines of the country because they serve as vital ecological arteries. But our waterways are being choked by chemical wastes, factory effluents, plastic bags and bottles, domestic sewage and suspended solids from land clearing.
We can help stop the rot by raising public awareness on the dangers of neglect, in addition to better monitoring, strict enforcement and stiffer punishment of offenders.
Media consultant M. Veera Pandiyan likes this observation by poet W. H. Auden: “Thousands have lived without love, not one without water.”