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March 20, 2011

Rising to the water challenge

Comment by ROGER TAN

It is everyone’s responsibility to ensure that we have adequate and affordable safe and clean drinking water for many years to come.

THIS Tuesday, March 22, is the 18th International World Water Day. This year’s theme, “Water for cities – responding to the urban challenge”, could not have been more timely in the context of how Selangor, Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya will come to grips with the challenge of urban water management due to increasing demand for safe and clean drinking water as a result of rapid growth in urban migration and population.

The Federal Government foresees that the residents of Selangor, Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya will experience water supply shortage by 2014 unless the increase in demand can be effectively met.

Many can still remember the water crisis that hit Kuala Lumpur in 1998 when water rationing lasted for several months until shortly before the Commonwealth Games were held.

http://thestar.com.my/archives/2011/3/20/nation/n_26project.jpg
Meeting demand: Work on the Pahang-Selangor Interstate Raw Water Transfer Project has started.

To avoid a repeat of such a crisis, the states of Pahang and Selangor signed a contract in November 2007 for Pahang to supply raw water to Selangor at the rate of 10 sen per 1,000 litres of water, and such rate would be reviewed every five years. In return, Pahang would receive an annual income of approximately RM85mil.

This RM9bil project, known as Pahang-Selangor Interstate Raw Water Transfer Project, comprises the construction of a 45km tunnel to transport some 1.89 billion litres of raw water daily to Selangor; Kelau Dam; Semantan Pumping Station; and Langat 2 Treatment Plant and its distribution system. With Japanese funding, the tunnel construction commenced on June 1, 2009 and is expected to be completed by May 2014.

However, to avert a possible water crisis, the Langat 2 Treatment Plant and its distribution system (Langat 2 Project) have to be completed in time or simultaneously with the completion of the water tunnel. When fully completed, the entire system is capable of producing more than 2,000 million litres of treated water a day (MLD), sufficient to help meet the projected water demand of about 4,900 MLD by 2014 in Selangor, Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya from the current demand of about 4,200 MLD.

However, the Selangor government has decided to tie together the state water restructuring issue involving four concessionaires – Syarikat Bekalan Air Selangor Sdn Bhd (Syabas), Puncak Niaga (M) Sdn Bhd (PNSB), Syarikat Pengeluar Air Sungai Selangor Bhd (Splash) and Konsortium Abass Sdn Bhd – and the commencement of Langat 2 Project. As a result, the land acquisition process has been put on hold and the relevant local authorities have also been directed to withhold planning permission for the development of the Langat 2 Project.

This is regrettable because the two issues are clearly independent of one another. The Langat 2 Project is solely about meeting the impending water shortage which the residents of Selangor, Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya will most likely face by 2014.

As Energy, Green Technology and Water Minister Datuk Seri Peter Chin aptly asked: “If there is a shortage of water due to the delay, whose responsibility is it?”

In fact, by withholding the planning permission or insisting that the permission can only be given after or subject to the resolution of the Selangor water restructuring impasse, the local authorities have acted unreasonably in breach of the celebrated “Wednesbury reasonableness” principle, that is, they have acted so unreasonably that no reasonable authority would have made such an unreasonable decision.

To my mind, the local authorities have also failed to give important consideration to a matter which they ought to have given.

A fortiori, the principles of good governance, too, require all public authorities including local authorities to implement laws and by-laws based exclusively on principles of equity and fairness at all times.

Similarly, it will be unlawful if the Federal Government should instruct, for example, the National Water Services Commission to act in the like manner when approving licences or any building plan for a water supply system under the Water Services Industry Act, 2006 by imposing unreasonable and irrelevant conditions.

As regards the water restructuring issue, it is my view that if every successive government is allowed to unilaterally review a contract entered into by the previous government, there will be no end to unnecessary politicking.

This only harms Malaysia’s competitiveness as a viable place for financial and economic activity and investment.

It is axiomatic that unless there is real evidence of illegality, the courts will always uphold the sanctity of a contract. As it is often said, the courts will not be a destroyer of bad bargains or act as if it is a knight in shining armour trying to rescue parties from their bad bargains!

Further, our politicians must desist from this unhealthy and puerile culture of trying to exact comeuppance on those they oppose or dislike, and take delight in causing their political or economic schadenfreude. They should instead pool their resources to surmount the multifaceted problems besetting the water services industry.

In fact, Malaysians should be grateful for being blessed with more than sufficient freshwater resources, giving us an easy access to clean and safe drinking water.

On the other hand, close to 900 million people in the world lack such access, and a child dies every 20 seconds due to a water-related disease.

It is hoped that all stakeholders in the water industry will be mindful of the fact that access to clean water is a fundamental human right.

This was expressed in the resolution of the United Nations General Assembly passed on July 28 last year which Malaysia, together with 121 other nations, voted in favour of despite developed countries like the United States, Canada and Australia abstaining from voting.

It follows, to take it facetiously, that there will not be any water shortage by 2014 or to further delay in granting the planning permission or subsequently withholding the building plan approval for Langat 2 Project as it will only offend this fundamental human rights principle.

It is hoped that those involved in the decision-making will set aside their political differences and come to their senses so as to uphold and safeguard the interests and needs of water consumers in Selangor, Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya.

Selangor should, therefore, immediately honour the Pahang-Selangor Interstate Raw Water Transfer Project Agreement by expediting the land acquisition process as well as without any further delay causing the planning permission to be issued for the Langat 2 Project by not linking it to the Selangor water industry restructuring issue.

So, may World Water Day 2011 remind each of us – Federal Government, state governments, water supply operators and consumers – that we have an important role to play in ensuring that Malaysians will continue to have adequate and affordable access to safe and clean drinking water for many, many more years to come.

On the part of the Federal Government and water operators, what is most urgent is to take effective steps to reduce non-revenue water (NRW) in the country. (NRW is treated water lost through pipe leakages, water thefts or metering errors before it reaches the consumers.)

It was recently reported that about 1.8 billion cubic metres of treated water worth an estimated RM1.64bil had gone down the drain in 2009.

The state governments, on the other hand, should ensure sufficiency and quality of raw water since constitutionally raw water still remains under the state’s jurisdiction. While state governments may impose charges for extraction of raw water, they should still take cognisance of the fact that whatever charges are imposed will ultimately be passed on to the consumers.

More importantly, Malaysians must make it a way of life to conserve water, especially since studies have revealed that Malaysians wasted the most water compared with other consumers in this region. Imagine if everyone does it, a lot of precious treated water can be conserved, and consumers will also find it easier to cope with any water shortage in the event of a crisis.

All in all, unless each stakeholder takes his respective role seriously, treated water will become insufficient and less affordable sooner than later. Let us not wait until the well is dry to appreciate the worth of water.

Happy celebrating World Water Day!

The writer is a commissioner of the National Water Services Commission (SPAN), but views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of SPAN. You can follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/rogertankm.


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