Friday, August 31, 2007

"Smelly" Water: Whose Responsibility?

post by Susanne Chi
"Smelly" Water: Whose Responsibility?

The Coalition Against Water Privatisation (CAWP) is concerned about public health crisis and the conflicting accounts of the smelly water contamination in Kuala Lumpur and Selangor. We are of the opinion that the smelly water contamination is only possible due to large-scale development upstream of the intake and within the catchment areas and/or negligence of the state government and/or of the water operator.

We reiterate our earlier call that all responsibility – in regulating water management including catchment areas and upstream development be brought under one federal regulator. Such a provision is absent in the draft Water Services Industry and SPAN Bills 2005 which will be debated in parliament later this month.

A) Smelly Water and Public Health – Conflicting Accounts but Whose Responsibility?

a) On March 3, 2006, the Syarikat Bekalan Air Selangor Sdn Bhd (Syabas) reiterated its earlier statement that the smell in the tap water was a chemical reaction involving high levels of ammonia in the raw water and chlorine.

b) On the same day, the Selangor Infrastructure and Public Utility Committee Chairman Datuk Abdul Fatah Iskandar told the press that the smelly water was a result of discharges from pig and dairy farms, oxidation ponds and palm oil mills polluting the river.

c) On March 4th, 2006, the Selangor State Department of Environment (DOE) reported, “pig and cattle farms have been ruled out as the source of the pollution. The Department confirmed that a pig abattoir located near the river, has been cleared after checks and tests and samples returned negative”.

d) On the very same day, the Selangor Menteri Besar was reported to have said: “the release of garbage from the Bukit Tagar landfill in Hulu Selangor could be one reason for the pollution of Sungai Selangor. He further added, “I am not saying that this is a 100% certainty, but there is a strong likelihood”.

e) On March 4th 2006, Natural Natural Resources and Environment Minister Datuk Seri Azmi Khalid identified the culprit behind the ammonia pollution of Sungai Selangor. He said, “...The water flowing from a catchment pond at the Bukit Tagar landfill has been identified as the cause of excessive content of ammonia in Sungai Selangor”.

Five separate statements were made in a 3 day period over the ‘smelly’ water contamination affair. Three of the five statements came from various offices of the Selangor State government including the Menteri Besar.

Why was there no coordination between the Federal and Selangor State Government including its various offices and Puncak Niaga/Syabas in uncovering the root cause of the pollution? In fact, both the Selangor State government and Puncak Niaga are owners of Syabas.

Syabas’ explanation on the root cause of Sungai Selangor’s pollution is in sharp contradiction with the Selangor State governments. In addition, the DOE’s report contradicts Datuk Abdul Fatah Iskandar explanation of the problem. Is it possible then that high levels of garbage dumping from the landfill with rotten garbage could have led to an increase in ammonia in Sungai Selangor?

In any case, why has not the Jabatan Kawal Selia Air Selangor (JKSAS) the regulator for the Syabas concession investigated this matter yet? The JKSAS silence is deafening.

However, from a public health standpoint, it is almost 10 days since the pollution was reported and we are still in the guessing game as to the root cause of the pollution of Sungai Selangor. Water consumption with fecal contamination could lead to e-coli bacteria entry into the human body causing severe illness due to diarrhea, fever, vomiting, chills, and stomach pain. The local media reported that residents in KL and Selangor have complained of these symptoms. The level of urgency in what is still be a potential health crisis is much to be desired.

B) Syabas and Quality of Water – Whose Responsibility?

1. Syabas’ Executive Chairman recent statement that - “the quality of water did not fall under the company's jurisdiction” – is a major cause of concern. He further added, "We treat raw water. If the river is polluted, how would you expect us to un-pollute it?" It might be the case that Syabas is not responsible for ‘unpolluting the river’ but surely, it is the concessionaire responsibility to ensure that water it treats must be safe for human consumption. If Syabas were unable to treat the water due to high levels of contamination, one would think that the prudent course of action was to shutdown the treatment plant. Is Syabas negligent?

In the final analysis, the responsibility to treat raw water however polluted for safe consumption lies with Puncak Niaga/ Syabas. Thus, Puncak Niaga/ Syabas cannot blame others for contamination of drinking water that it has treated.

2. Standard operating procedures in treatment plants require the plant be immediately closed:

a. when the quality of the raw water is excessively contaminated;

b. if the raw water cannot be effectively treated; and

c. Intake of new contaminated raw water should not be allowed - into the system under any circumstances.

d. The treatment plant should be shutdown. A chemist should have been called in to study and recommend remedial matters.

The polluted water “under no circumstances” should be allowed into the public water distribution system.

3. The question that both the Federal, State government and Syabas – all parties to the concession agreement - need to answer is the following:

(a) Why was the treatment plant not closed regardless of weather there was excessive ammonia or high levels of discharges from pig and dairy farms, oxidation ponds and palm oil mills?

(b) Why was the existing emergency plan at the treatment plant not activated given the excessive contamination?
(c) Did a ‘loss in revenue’ play a part in Puncak Niaga/ Syabas decision not to close the treatment plant?

(d) Should the residents continue to trust Puncak Niaga/ Syabas on water safety given the potential health implications of smelly water?

CAWP calls upon the government:

(i) to determine if Syabas was:
a) negligent;
b) compromised prescribed water quality standards; and
c) endangered public health in the affected areas;

(ii) to determine if Syabas should compensate water users in the affected areas;

(iii) To ensure, safeguard and protect catchment areas and strictly control any development within the catchment areas, especially upstream of the treatment plants. The government must enact laws to protect catchment areas and any form of developments in these areas;

(iv) to closely monitor of all existing sewage oxidation pond and sewage plant in water catchment areas and introduce warning system in case of pollution discharge;

(v) to declassify the Syabas concession agreement for public scrutiny;

(vi) To revoke the Concession Agreement with Syabas and take over the management of water in the state. The responsibility of supplying clean, safe, clear, odourless water to consumers should be the sole responsibility of the government and not left in the hands of the private sector.

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