By Mariam Mokhtar
Looking at newspaper photos of people queuing behind water lorries, holding empty bottles and buckets to get clean water is a sight one normally associates with war-torn, conflict-ravaged countries, or places which have suffered a major natural disaster like an earthquake.
Who would have thought that the photos were taken in Selangor, arguably the most industrialized and richest state in Malaysia?
Here are some of Selangor's many ironies.
What use is the term "industrialized", "developed status" or "first-world" when our recurring water shortages prove that we are basically a third world country?
Malaysia is a tropical country that experiences heavy rainfall during the monsoons, and yet parts of Selangor and Kuala Lumpur can alternate between flooding in one week and a shortage of water the next. This aspect of "climate change" has adversely affected many people.
During this coronavirus pandemic, we were told to wash our hands scrupulously and observe social distancing. This is impossible when the taps run dry. With an insufficient supply of water for drinking, chances of people washing their hands often, as advised by the Ministry of Health, will be low.
Selangor enjoys a good infrastructure network, with ports, airports and good roads, compared with other states. Occupying the top position, being the most industrialized state does not spare it from experiencing serious water problems.
When there is an interruption in the water supply, most factories, homes, restaurants and offices, have to stop work or find alternative means of storing water. This does not auger well for foreign investors who may wish to build factories in Selangor.
Selangor must have some of the best brains in the nation, best academics and universities, but none have been able to resolve the water problem. Forget about trying to resolve water issues in the other states which have similar water problems. If rich Selangor is unable to resolve these issues, what chance has the rest of Malaysia?
Is it a case of insufficient money? Selangor is the richest state and if its reserves of money cannot help resolve the decades-old water problems, why does it not seek help from Putrajaya?
Perhaps, Putrajaya is playing hard-to-get and is politicizing the water problem because Selangor is currently ruled by the opposition party/coalition. However, it does not explain why Selangor, which was ruled by Umno-Baru/BN before 2008, did not resolve its water issues then?
So, is it corruption, poor planning, lack of enforcement or a shortage of the relevant manpower? Were planning approvals for factories made without any proper consultation with the relevant agencies like the departments of environment, energy and fire?
Before a factory was built, was the full Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) conducted or was this waived because crony companies enjoy cozy ties with powerful politicians?
Why is there an explosion of illegal factories?
Are the pipes which supply water to us too old? Leaking or burst piles need regular maintenance. Old ones need to be replaced with pipes which are constructed of better materials.
When water was privatized, did the company given the responsibility of managing water supply and distribution fail to maintain its resources? If so, why? The company enjoyed a monopoly and its owners enjoyed the profits, but how did the rakyat benefit?
Selangor, like other states in Malaysia, has seen massive development and a population explosion. We have seen the mushrooming of industrial sites, massive apartment blocks or several housing units crammed onto a relatively small plot of land. Where does the waste water outlet go?
What importance do developers place on water drainage and surface run-off? The size of the monsoon drains remain the same, and when it rains, the whole area is flooded. Some people lay paving stones on their front (and back) gardens. This means that surface water run-off cannot seep into the ground, and ends up flooding roads and causing monsoon drains to overflow. How often are drains cleared of debris? This may not be a water supply problem, but it shows the lack of joined-up thinking of our authorities and developers.
We are now seeing the consequences of the authorities' failure to observe the very basic guidelines and good practices for factories and discharge of water and effluent into rivers. When will we learn from our previous mistakes?
Each time the river is polluted and the water supply to millions of people is affected, the Department of Environment and the Mentri Besar have nothing more to offer apart from excuses.
The rakyat want results, not more excuses! How many companies have been fined, shut down and made to pay for cleaning the contaminated rivers? How many directors have been prosecuted? How many corrupt civil servants have been exposed and punished?
Finally, it is doubtful that our politicians know the suffering of the rakyat. If they were on a dialysis machine, or a nursing mother, they may know the importance of being able to access clean water.
Most politicians, including the prime minister and other important people, have lorries bringing water to their homes to ensure they are not inconvenienced. The ordinary rakyat just suffer in silence, and are grateful to queue with a bottle behind the water supplying lorry.
To paraphrase Dr Mahathir Mohamad, "Malaysians mudah lupa." Instead of keeping up the pressure and demanding political actions to resolve the water problems, once and for all, most Malaysians are so grateful when the taps start functioning that they forgot all their water woes.
Until the next shortage…
1. MalaysiaKini: PSM wants MB's head to roll over water woes
2. Free Malaysia Today: 4 loji air Sungai Selangor ditutup 6 kali tahun ini akibat pencemaran
(Mariam Mokhtar is a Freelance Writer.)