Enough of water politics

FOR the past 10 years that the Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR)-led government has been in power in Selangor, Malaysia's most populous and industrialised state has had to go through a spate of water supply crises causing untold misery to millions of people while many industries suffer millions in business losses.

Another round of the protracted water crisis hit some three million residents last month and once again Selangor's messy water politics reared its ugly head with Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Azmin Ali criticising a senior civil servant who was just telling the truth about why there wasn't enough water.

Datuk Seri Dr Zaini Ujang, the secretary-general of the Energy, Green Technology and Water Ministry had said poor water management in this premier state resulted in a zero reserve margin of this vital resource.

Without doing his homework, Azmin blasted Zaini, an internationally recognised water engineer, even childishly challenging him to "contest in the coming general election".

I would say that this kind of "below the belt" politicking is most demoralising to civil servants who are trying to do an honest job, let alone someone of Zaini's reputation.

Azmin was quoted as saying: "All water treatment plants in Selangor certainly have raw water for treatment.

"Water just doesn't come out of the blue, the question of insufficient water does not arise. The problem is we have an incompetent secretary-general and I challenge him to contest in the election if he dares to."

The fact is Selangor doesn't have enough treated water as reserves to go by due to its very high consumption and the issue is not raw water as Azmin had contended.
And one would expect a mentri besar to know the difference between raw water and treated water before going into another round of politicising water that has caused so much damage to all industry players and everyone else.

To be fair, Azmin inherited a bad legacy of water politics that started soon after the Barisan Nasional lost power in the state 10 years ago.

Azmin's predecessor, Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim, soon after he took over in 2008, was obsessed with his policy of "restructuring" the state's water industry that was privatised by the earlier Umno-led
government to several concessionaires.

During the six years that he was the MB, he made life difficult for the concessionaires, even rejecting their bids to increase water tariffs as provided for under the agreement and this led to a slew of legal suits.

The water politicking in Selangor worsened when Khalid introduced his free water policy, a highly populist policy that makes the state probably the only place in the world to provide free water to residents.

Water is a scarce resource and the whole world is reportedly heading towards freshwater stress or shortages and by 2050, as much as 75% of the world's population could face freshwater scarcity.

And yet the state government saw it fit to implement this policy and when something as scarce as water is given free, then it goes without saying that wastage worsens.

No citizen in any country in his or her right mind would expect free water because there's no life without water.

To say that it's free is a political camouflage because so far, the state government has paid out more than RM1.5 billion to the water suppliers, money that would have been better used to provide other amenities especially to the lower-income group, like affordable houses and the like.

The privatised concessionaires would have managed the industry according to what they were obligated to under the agreement if only there wasn't political interference from the state government.

Since then, three of the four concessionaires have been brought under the state government's control in a buy-out but the deal with another one, Syarikat Pengeluaran Air Selangor Sdn Bhd (SPLASH) is still unresolved.

The people and industries would not have to endure these frequent water woes had the Khalid-led state government granted the development order for a vital federal-funded project to build the Langat 2 plant to treat raw water from Pahang.

Again due to Selangor's water politics, Langat 2 that would have ensured enough freshwater for Selangor, Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya for many years to come, has now been delayed for five years from its scheduled completion date.

It is now due to be ready only in 2022.

And because approval was not given by the state government, several costly mitigation projects were implemented since then just to increase the water reserve margin from 0% to 4% and these alone have cost over RM1 billion in taxpayers' money.

Again, this RM1 billion could have been saved if only the development order was granted when it was sought in the first place.

Mitigation measures are like patchwork and water is certainly not something we can play the fool with.

Enough is enough of this prolonged crisis and it is now clear that only the federal government's intervention can put an end to it.

According to Energy, Green Technology and Water Minister Datuk Seri Dr Maximus Ongkili, the federal government is mulling two options to resolve the crisis and announced July as the deadline.

It would invoke Section 114 of the Water Services Industry Act (WSIA) that would enable the federal government to take action for the sake of national interest.

If the zero water reserve margin persists and the state government still refuses to strike a deal with SPLASH, then the WSIA will be used to take over water management in Selangor.

The second option is for the federal government to either extend or terminate Selangor's water restructuring agreement, which means that if there is no extension, the agreement will be terminated and the federal government will offer to manage water supply in Selangor through the act.

A big credit must be given to the federal government for having done everything possible and sparing no expense to avoid a crisis that could cripple Malaysia's most vital region.

With the general election just around the corner, everyone wants the federal government to do what it thinks it must do in the national interest.

Needless to say, a water crisis is the mother of all crises. Water is life.

Comments: letters@thesundaily.com