Don’t take water for granted

WHEN I made my debut as a columnist with theSun over five years ago, my first column was entitled: "Untangling the politics of water".

It was about how too much politicking by the Selangor state government then headed by Tan Sri Abdul Khalid Ibrahim was making life difficult for the five privatised concessionaires running water services in Selangor, Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya, the nation's most densely populated regions.

Since then, I must admit here that writing about water by way of getting the message across especially to Khalid and industry players and to consumers not to mess up with water, has been my personal jihad or crusade.

I have written consistently about water so much so that a senior executive of Syabas, one of the concessionaires, even asked me whether I felt "lonely" being about the only journalist who's been harping on the issue.

I told him that I certainly feel I'm on the right track doing this because for all intents and purposes, water is undoubtedly life's most precious commodity.

I have been a resident of Selangor for some 35 years now. All was well and good with our running water until too much politics got in the way soon after the fall of the Barisan Nasional state government and the rise of Pakatan Rakyat in the 2008 general election.

Khalid was bent on getting the concessionaires back under the control of the state government and things started going awry from then on.

And in a move that could only be described as unfortunate from the water conservation point of view, the then state government kept its election promise of giving free water (for the first 20 cubic metres), which means that most domestic consumers, including the rich, have been paying practically zero for their water since then.

This so-called free water is nothing more than a "populist" move and lest we are misled into thinking that it's free, let's face the fact it's not.

The Selangor government has to fork out RM11 million monthly to compensate Syabas or RM132 million annually and since then it has spent about RM2 billion just for this purpose, money that could be better spent on helping the poor.

Playing politics with a life-giving resource like water has claimed its "victims" with Syabas and its three water treatment operators facing serious cash flow problems when the then Khalid administration rejected all attempts to raise tariffs as provided under the 30-year concession agreement signed in 2004.

In other words, Syabas was not even allowed to exercise what's legally binding, leading to legal suits and what not.

Again politics ruled the day although allowing a tariff hike could only mean an average RM3 increase a month for most domestic consumers which is much less than what most parents pay daily to top up the credit line for mobile phones of their school-going children.

But what irked the water consumers most was Khalid's move not to grant the development order for the Langat 2 treatment plant, a massive project undertaken by the federal government to channel water from Pahang to Selangor that would ensure sufficient water supply in the three regions up to 2030 at least.

It was only shortly before he was replaced as mentri besar about two years ago by Datuk Seri Azmin Ali that the development order as well as the buy-back deal to take over the concessionaires were signed, except for one concessionaire.

Had the development order for Langat 2 been granted from Day 1, the treatment plant would have been operational way back in 2014 and because it wasn't, some 7.5 million people as well as the industrial hub in Selangor have had to endure water supply disruptions.

The point that I have been making consistently is that a water crisis should be avoided at all costs because if such a crisis happens, it's going to be the Mother of all Crises simply because water is life.

According to the United Nations, 1.8 billion people don't have access to safe drinking water. Unsafe water and poor sanitation cause 842,000 deaths each year.

Credit should be given to the federal government for coming up with the Langat 2 project which costs billions but partisan politics within the previous state government threw a spanner in the works.

The worst water disruptions happened towards the end of last year where some four million residents had to make do with regular dry taps.

At the height of another round of supply disruptions about three years ago, a leading multinational food manufacturer located in Selangor was reported to have lost RM15 million daily for failing to meet its international orders.

The Langat 2 plant is now scheduled to be operational late this year but the whole system including the distribution line is due to be ready by 2019.

Water politics has cooled down tremendously since Azmin took over and the mentri besar has made it a point to officiate at a number of campaigns to save water by telling consumers that clean water is expensive to produce.

It would indeed take a huge political will on his part if he were to end the free water policy.

By and large, Malaysians' appreciation of the real value of water is perhaps the lowest in the world and the sooner they stop taking water too much for granted, the better it will be for future water security.

Water is very much in the news this week, too.

In Singapore, the government recently announced a 30% price increase – the first in 17 years – and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke on Monday about water's importance to Singapore's survival and that it must be priced to reflect its scarcity.

The increase is unavoidable because water is a strategic resource for Singapore which gets most of its raw water from Malaysia under long-term agreements that expire only in 2060.

How I wish Malaysians treat water like the Singaporeans do because even though we can bank on the rivers for raw water, they are increasingly being contaminated by industrial wastes and sediment from logging activities. Water treatment plants have been shut down temporarily over concerns with raw water quality.

To cap it all, the sultan of Selangor on Monday, in his royal address opening the new session of the state legislative assembly told all parties to stop playing politics with water.

Thank you, your royal highness.