Water woes: A recipe for repeat offences


  • Letters
  • Tuesday, 08 Sep 2020

Water being tested at Air Selangor’s Labohan Dagang Water Treatment Plant. — SHAARI CHEMAT/The Star

The monitoring and enforcement abilities of the Department of Environment (DOE) and Selangor’s environment, green technology, science, technology and innovation, and consumer affairs committee have to be questioned – do they have the ability to carry out their responsibilities adequately?

Weaknesses in environmental monitoring and enforcement of laws, combined with measly fines for polluters, create a recipe for repeat offences. Economic pressures will exacerbate this situation as irresponsible and greedy companies ignore ethics, laws and environmental impacts to cut costs. It’s clear that regulatory enforcement against polluters needs to be greatly improved.

Although the Environmental Quality Act 1974 specifies standards for effluent discharge upstream of raw water intakes, the authorities should consider reviewing this and banning discharge altogether or only allowing it under the strictest of conditions or special circumstances.

As for preventive punishment, a differentiation is needed between penalties for accidental release of pollutants (mismanagement, equipment failures, etc) and repeat offenders. The latter calls for the strictest of punishment such as:

> Charging perpetrators with the cost of damage to water treatment plants, clean-up costs, disruption to businesses and industries, and water losses;

> With immediate effect, halt the operations of all waste treatment and disposal businesses that do not have in place mandatory processes and steps to treat and dispose of waste according to DOE requirements, until these have been met;

> Charging the culprits the total cost incurred from the failure to reinstate the necessary changes to the need for demolishment of the premises;

> Jail time with community service. As the crime raises significant public anger, considerations of method of supervision and choice of community service type and location will be needed to prevent the public from imposing street justice on the perpetrators;

> Permanent revocation of license to operate.

Although a denial of water services to the perpetrators’ registered home addresses may appear to be a fitting punishment, this would affect their families who may not be involved in the matter.

From the operational preventive standpoint – and assuming resource limitations to be a major factor instead of a lackadaisical attitude – the DOE can be empowered with the use of new technologies and the improvement of monitoring and detection practices such as the following:

> In situ “live” monitoring using smart sensors at designated effluent discharge points, which adopts the existing monitoring practice of air pollutant emissions – liquid discharge/effluents are still randomly checked and self-monitored;

> Include flow rates as a parameter to be measured at those discharge points. Significant changes/fluctuations may indicate attempts to bypass the designated discharge points. This applies to manufacturing plants with proper production processes;

> Apply 4IR (Fourth Industrial Revolution) technologies and digital tools. The resulting big data generated can be enhanced with machine learning at DOE central HQ to further increase rates of detection and reduce false positive cases;

> Implement high mobility surveillance for spot checks using technologies such as drones. Perhaps the excitement of flying drones would address any lackadaisical attitude among the authorities and sights of the machines might incite new fear in would-be polluters;

> Tech-assisted surveillance may be focused on industrial sites with high concentrations of low-tech factories/plants without fixed in-out mass balances (like the machinery maintenance factory involved in this incident as well as workshops, etc), while properly implemented measures of the proposed improved live monitoring practices would take care of more process/manufacturing/production-oriented industrial sites.

Even with the measures above, bypass activities may still slip through and the resulting pollution upstream of water treatment plants – which can occur in any part of the country – has to be detected via a large-scale remote sensing technology such as the use of satellites.

This is already implemented to monitor oil palm plantations throughout the country as in situ monitoring is not feasible. It may be worth exploring the potential to expand this practice for water pollution detection especially considering that water quality/water source issues should be treated as a national security matter.

Data generated from satellite monitoring can be put through photo-video analytics with machine learning capabilities to provide the DOE with high-tech nationwide detection capabilities.

In cases where all of the above legal and operational preventive measures fail and upstream pollutants reach water treatment plants, strategies for improved management of water supply disruption should also be considered. This may include additional backup sources through a bypass/transfer connection of treated water from the nearest water treatment plants. However, it’s likely that issues of cost, organisational politics and territorial jurisdiction may be a problem in implementing such measures.

The water treatment plants should be praised, especially their frontliners working day and night to overhaul and clean all parts of pollutants. But the competency and integrity of regulatory authorities are in question. Since 2019, water disruptions in Selangor have occurred regularly, with pollution as the major cause, in 38% of incidents; followed by power supply trouble and upgrading work at 23% each; water levels and technical issues comprised a low 8% each.

AMEEN KAMAL

Head of Science & Technology, Emir Research


Note: Emir Research is an independent think tank focused on strategic policy recommendations.

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