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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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