indepth

Integrated approach needed to fight raw water contamination

KUALA LUMPUR (Jan 28): Throughout 2019, the Klang Valley experienced disruptions in water supply at least nine times, a good number of which were due to contamination of the raw water supply.

Water disruptions can also be caused by technical problems, maintenance works at treatment plants, burst pipes and high turbidity levels of the river water but the most worrying among them is the contamination of raw water as a result of oil and diesel spills and discharge of toxic effluents into rivers by unscrupulous factory operators.

River basins are most vulnerable to pollution for that is where solid waste such as furniture and, of more concern, illegal industrial effluents are usually disposed of.

Each time the raw water source is contaminated by diesel or toxic waste, the operations at the treatment plant concerned have to be brought to a halt to prevent further damage. According to experts, Malaysia's water treatment plants are not equipped with the facilities to treat contaminants.

Any delay in shutting down the treatment plant concerned, will result in the contamination of its water by the toxic substances. This will lead to longer downtime, and higher costs as well, as the plant has to be detoxified.

Lack of coordination

Last year alone, the Sungai Semenyih water treatment plant (WTP), located near the confluence of Sungai Semenyih and Sungai Langat, was closed thrice due to odour pollution believed to have been caused by the illegal discharge of toxic effluents.

About 1.5 million people or 336,930 account holders including commercial premises such as restaurants, were affected by the resulting water cuts following the shutdown of the WTP for remedial works.

As a matter of fact, last November, Selangor State Environment, Green Technology, Science, Technology and Innovation, and Consumer Affairs Committee chairman Hee Loy Sian told the State Legislative Assembly that water treatment plants in the state had to be shut down 744 times from 2008 to June 2019 due to contamination.

He said the cause of the contamination included oil and diesel spills, effluents, ammonia and high manganese content in the raw water.

Meanwhile the perpetrators, namely the environmental criminals who dump their toxic wastes into the nation's waterways, manage to get off scot-free.

The reason for this, according to Water and Energy Consumers Association of Malaysia president T. Saravanan, is the lack of coordination among the relevant government departments and agencies which has resulted in the underutilisation of existing legislation to address the problem.

He told Bernama the Ministry of Water, Land and Natural Resources, Ministry of Housing and Local Government, Indah Water Consortium, Department of Environment (DoE) and the National Water Services Commission (SPAN) do not have an integrated action plan to resolve issues related to the safety of raw water supply

"Only when they have such a plan will the public have confidence that this matter (raw water contamination) can be resolved.

"This is because there is no technology capable of cleaning up polluted rivers," he said.

Besides the integrated action plan involving all the relevant agencies, Malaysians must also realise that it is their responsibility to take care of the nation's rivers and stop dumping garbage into them, he added.

Legislation

Stressing that the authorities should be more serious about tackling this matter, Saravanan said the existing legislation should be amended to increase penalties and also beef up the enforcement power of the authorities concerned.

The Environmental Quality Act 1974 carries a maximum imprisonment of five years and fine not exceeding RM500,000.

Section 121 of the Water Services Industry Act 2006, meanwhile, carries stiff penalties, including the death sentence and whipping, for offences related to water contamination but, according to Universiti Putra Malaysia academic Dr Mohd Yusoff Ishak, no one was hauled to court under this section although there were several cases involving contamination of raw water supply last year.

Section 121 (1) states that a person who "contaminates or causes to be contaminated any watercourse or the water supply system with any substance with the intention to cause death; with the knowledge that he is likely to cause death; or which would likely endanger the life of any person, commits an offence".

Under Section 121 (2) (a), if a person is found guilty of causing death as a result of his act, he "shall be punished with death" or imprisonment of up to 20 years.

Under Section 121 (2) (b), the offender faces imprisonment not exceeding 10 years or a fine not exceeding RM500,000 or whipping or all three if his act does not cause death but the "substance that is used to contaminate the watercourse or water supply system is a radioactive or toxic substance".

Mohd Yusoff, who is a senior lecturer in aquatic resources management, water quality and lake management at UPM's Faculty of Environmental Studies, pointed out that even the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012 provides the police with the authority to investigate and take action against any person suspected of sabotage.

"Contaminating any source of raw water is an act of sabotage," he said, adding that he is surprised that "the relevant provisions in the existing legislation are not being enforced" by the authorities.

Hard to bring offenders to book

Mohd Yusoff said the failure to detect the perpetrators and bring them to justice clearly indicates the presence of loopholes that need to be addressed in order to empower the authorities and curtail further pollution of the nation's water resources.

Along with the Klang Valley's rapid development and increase in industrial and housing projects, the agencies charged with enforcing environmental laws should always be on standby for water contamination, he said.

"Efforts by the Selangor government to increase its reserves of raw water are praiseworthy but it will not last long if the river polluters are not apprehended and charged in court," he said.

According to Mohd Yusoff, the seeming ineffectiveness of the agencies in mobilising their resources to control water pollution could be attributed to their overlapping jurisdictions.

There is a need for more comprehensive enforcement action across the agencies and ministries concerned, which must also build up their environmental forensic expertise to identify the source of contamination in order to produce evidence to charge the polluter in court.  

For this, he added, DoE should have its own laboratory that meets the required international standards to allow for quicker analyses of water samples. 

Need to be proactive

Mohd Yusoff also pointed out that while Malaysia is still looking at ammoniacal nitrogen and biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) levels in water samples each time a contamination case crops up, more serious threats have emerged of late.

European nations, he said, are currently busy dealing with contaminants such as microplastics and endocrine disruptors, which are chemicals that may interfere with the body's endocrine system.

He said Malaysia should also look into the latest threats because the people here are using cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and other products that may contain endocrine disruptors.

"So, for now, the water quality parameters that we use have to be re-evaluated to suit the current situation and state of our rivers," he said, adding that in order to restore the people's confidence in the nation's water supply system, it is imperative that new parameters be introduced to represent the emerging pollutants.

Mohd Yusoff also felt that there should be drastic changes in the approach to managing raw water for consumption purposes.

"Currently, the authorities resort to 'end-of-pipe' techniques to treat the water in the event of contamination. A more proactive approach will be to address the risks faced by our country's water resources, namely rivers," he said.

European countries have gone one step ahead by giving the public online access to the water quality readings of their area's drinking water supply, he said.

"It indirectly enhances their confidence in the safety of their tap water. Our authorities too should be more serious about guaranteeing the safety of the nation's water supply," he added.

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