On the 3rd of September 2020, the entire Klang Valley, from Shah Alam to Kuala Lumpur had experienced an unscheduled disruption in their water supply from Sep 3, affecting about 1.2 million consumers. The disruption was caused by the closure of Sungai Selangor Phase 1, 2 and 3 as well as Rantau Panjang water treatment plants, due to pollution at the plants' raw water source. The pollution in Sungai Selangor was traced to a machinery maintenance factory in Rawang, resulting in its closure and the arrest of four men who would be later detained and investigated Section 430 of the Penal Code. Perhaps on it’s own this water disruption might seem like a shut-and-open clase where the culprit has been caught red-handed, save for the fact that the water supply for the entire Klang Valley was also disrupted by pollution in both 2016, and 2019. What would have been a routine disruption in July 2019 was marred by diesel pollution related to sand mining activities inciting a code red emergency, shutting all three plants. In December 2019, Air Selangor announced the complete shutdown of the Sungai Semenyih water treatment plant due to another odour pollution, traced to the illegal disposal of waste containing solvents at the inlet around the Indah Water Konsortium plant. 2016 also saw shutdowns being caused by the detection of pollution at the Sungai Semenyih water treatment plant. This suggests that there is more to the issue than meets the eye. A review of the policies we have in place to protect our water supply seems more necessary than before; water disruptions affect people of every race and religion, especially more so during a pandemic when many remain at home.
We should not be accepting such disruptions as a regular part of our routine life, especially when one considers how costly they are to both citizens and the government. In November 2016, 2016 Hansard for the Selangor DUN, Selangor EXCO member Zaidy Abdul Talib said the Emergency Response Plan (ERP) activated by Air Selangor for each time water treatment plants are shut down cost RM6.9 million. As for the cleaning works at premises that caused the 2016 pollution at Sungai Semenyih with four shutdowns, an estimated total of RM21 million was spent, the Selangor DUN was told. For us individuals who had to brave such a shortage, stocking up on water may have been sufficient for us, but this was unfortunately not the case for businesses. The worst affected were the food and beverage industries, many of whom have already been in dire financial straits as a consequence of the MCO.
The four siblings who were arrested as suspects for the water pollution were from Yip Chee Seng & Sons Sdn Bhd located at Kampung Sungai Dua in Rawang. For their selfish actions, the four men aged between 50 and 60, and a workshop manager were to be ultimately charged under Section 430 of the Penal Code, and Section 25(3) of the Environment Quality Act. Pleading not guilty, the five were released on a bail of RM 2 million (RM 400,000 per person) and their factory was compounded. The five were also to surrender their passports to the court until the disposal of the case. For comparison, Section 25 (3) would have left the four facing a fine not more than RM100,000 or imprisonment of not more than five years or both, if convicted. The offence under Section 430 carries an imprisonment term of not more than 30 years, or a fine, or both, if convicted. The bail fee of RM 400,000 was cumulative of both violations. Compared to the estimated RM 20 million spent in emergency procedures as a result of their actions, it is a negligible amount of money, and thus one would presume that this fine might serve as a deterrent to other potential offenders. There are many who would agree that the sentence was far too lenient. The former National Water Services Commission (SPAN) chairman recommended that the water polluters be brought to court under the Water Services Industries Act 2006 where an offender faces imprisonment of up to 10 years, a fine not exceeding RM500,000, or whipping, or to all three punishments.
Ultimately, the question of how to prevent further incidents from happening in the future remains, as does the question of how to better ensure the security of our precious water in the future. Water quality expert Dr Praveena Nair suggested that implementing the integrated water billing system in more states - introduced by the Water, Land and Natural Resources Ministry in 2019 would be key to raising public awareness about the issue. Terengganu had been the first to do so in December 2019, it is unclear if other states have followed suit since then. In addition, Dr. Nair also suggested the creation of a record of all chemical components from the companies that carry pollutants, which The National Water Services Commission (SPAN) and Department of Environment would have access to in the hopes of deterring further unsanctioned waste disposals. To further prove the urgency of the need of our government to work on more impactful preventive measures, the above statements were actually taken following the incident of water pollution in Sungai Semenyih in December 2019. The government is launching an Environmental Crime Unit in response to this latest dumping, a step in the right direction. This tripartite cooperation between the Environment and Water Ministry, Defence Ministry and Home Ministry will need to keep to its word of carrying out inspections at factories to prevent untoward incidents, and in building monitoring stations as an early warning system. As with all past big plans the government has had in the past, our faults have always been in the execution of said plans. Whether this new Crime Unit will be able to create impact or just become another taxpayer’s burden remains to be seen.
Written by: Idris Azim