Wading into troubled waters

  • So Aunty, So What?
  • Wednesday, 09 Sep 2020

Yes, we got our water back but we risk future disruptions as long as there is no concrete, sustainable plan to prevent contamination of this precious resource.

SIX years on and we are no wiser. We remain shortsighted, wasteful fools. That was my lament in an April 23,2014 column headlined “Wanted: A rational water plan” (online at bit.ly/star_aunty).

I wrote it at a time when several parts of the country were grappling with severe water rationing which underscored the need for a master plan for managing our water resources and supply holistically for the very long term.

That crisis could be attributed to nature as a prolonged spell of dry weather led to critically low water levels in our reservoirs. Of course, we could say it ultimately was still man-made because human activities had led to climate change which made our rainfall patterns unreliable and unpredictable.

There is no doubt at all that what 1.2 million people in 1,292 areas in the Klang Valley just went through was man-made. Taps dried up because Air Selangor shut down four treatment plants last Thursday after odour pollution from industrial waste was detected and traced to Sungai Gong, a tributary of Sungai Sembah which, in turn, flows into Sungai Selangor, a major water source for the treatment plants.

We suffered the dreadful inconvenience of not being able to cook, do our laundry, flush our toilets, bathe properly and more.

The Covid-19 SOP of washing hands frequently went out the window. When we did wash, it was soapless or with just a dab so that we could rinse off with as little water as possible.

It was even harder for people in businesses requiring lots of water, especially when they were already trying to recover from the ravages of the pandemic and consequent lockdown.

Air Selangor announced it could take at least four days to flush out the pollutants and warned it could take up to six days for full supply to resume. As it turned out, most households got their water back within two to three days. Which is really tolerable compared with some of the previous water cuts caused by drought that lasted for weeks in some areas.

But what got people up in arms was the cause of this disruption. We can tolerate it when it is caused by burst pipes or scheduled maintenance work but not when it’s irresponsible dumping of industrial waste into our water source, this time from a heavy machinery maintenance factory in Rawang.

The swift arrests of the alleged perpetrators didn’t assuage public anger because soon after, it was revealed the factory was illegal and had been fined RM60,000 for the same offence just six months ago.

Now the Selangor state government plans to cut off electricity and water supply to the place and demolish it.

Talk about shutting the barn door after the horse has galloped off! Can we suspect some hanky-panky here? After all, the authorities knew of the factory’s lack of proper disposal methods for its waste but let it carry on operating.

The public has made angry demands for stringent monitoring, stronger enforcement and tougher penalties for offenders. But haven’t we gone through this many times before?

This is a problem that is endemic to Selangor and Kuala Lumpur. These are the most developed and densely populated areas in the country, so it behoves both state and federal governments to ensure the safety and security of water sources because any disruption will have an immense impact on many citizens and businesses.

But just as we demand that the government does its part, we, the people, have our part to play too. Factory owners and ordinary folk alike must surely know the damage they can inflict on the whole community if they dump nasty stuff like used cooking oil, benzene, diesel and, in this latest episode, solvents into their drains which flow into our rivers. Yet it keeps happening.

That’s why we are a nation of shortsighted, wasteful fools. As in the past, the outcry will likely subside now that we got our water back. We will resume our careless, wasteful ways. Until the next water disruption.

Water is humanity’s most precious resource. But we overuse it without nary a thought (Selangor’s rate of consumption in 2017, according to then Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Azmin Ali, was 250 litres per capita, the highest in Asean). Worse, we risk losing it either by way of natural phenomena like drought or man-made disasters like pollution.

We have some good laws like the Malaysian Uniform Building By-Laws 1984 that, since 2012, requires all new detached buildings as well as bungalows and semi-detached bungalows with a roof area of 100sq m and above to install rainwater harvesting systems.

But what about older buildings?

As I wrote in my column six years ago, countries like Australia have subsidies for people who buy rainwater storage tanks for their homes and workplaces. Not only that, they have regulations that require new housing developments to have dual water supply systems: one for drinking water and another for “grey” water, which is recycled water that’s not clean enough for drinking and cooking but good enough for external watering and washing.

It’s high time we have something similar since, as Azmin noted, studies showed only 30% of treated water was used for food and drinking while 70% was for washing cars and clothes, baths, and watering plants.

And if the authorities can’t manage to effectively monitor our rivers, let citizens help. It’s called community water monitoring which Streamwatch, another Australian initiative worth emulating, is all about. According to its website, this is a “citizen science water monitoring programme that enables community groups to monitor the quality and health of local waterways”.

What was started in 1990 by Sydney water authorities as a trial project with 15 secondary schools has expanded to include other members of the community. There are now over 1,100 Streamwatch groups that monitor water quality at over 1,060 sites. Students, community groups and other volunteers are trained to test and collect physical and chemical data of the waterways in the Sydney area.

I want to reiterate my appeal for a rational, watertight master plan to manage and protect our water resources. If we don’t have one, we will all suffer together, unless of course, you just happen to have a swimming pool-size reserve of water in your backyard.

The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

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