Something smells in Bolehland

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… and it's not just the water, says Ong Eu Soon, in expressing horror that contaminated water could be channelled into our drinking water supply system. 

 “We cannot survive as a species, if greed is privileged and protected and the economics of the greedy sets the rules for how we live and die.”

– Vandana Shiva, a world-renowned
environmental thinker and activist

Access to fresh water is not only our fundamental need, it is also our fundamental human right. It is the  government’s obligation to protect the water supply and to ensure  that all citizens are provided with  uncontaminated drinking water. Abdicating  its responsibilities is tantamount to committing outrageous crime against humanity.

As water privatisation proceeds on the quiet, the growing concern about profiting from the nation’s water crisis is understandable. What is unimaginable is when greed sets in and contaminated water is channelled into our drinking water supply system.

Whose responsibility to un-pollute?

Malaysia’s rivers have never been known for their beauty or cleanliness. The water from many of our rivers is not fit to drink. The water from some of our major rivers can only be used for non-conventional purposes. Although the water channelled from rivers for our water supply does go through filtration and treatment, there are limits as to what can be done to purify the water. These limits were evident in the outburst by Puncak Niaga/Syabas CEO, Tan Sri Rozali Ismail, who said, “We treat raw water. If the river is polluted, how would you expect us to un-pollute it?” (New Straits Times, 3 March 2006)

Does the government know how clean our rivers are? When the Selangor state government was questioned about its attempt to privatise three main rivers, namely, the Selangor River, the Langat River and the Klang River, State Infrastructure and Public Amenities Committee Chairperson Datuk Abdul Fatah Iskandar responded that the state government is aware that the rivers are not clean and that it would have to spend large amounts of money to maintain them. So why let us drink contaminated water?

The stink test

Indigenous folks know how polluted a river is by the smell of the water. The smell says it all, says Ib Larsen of Consultancy within Engineering, Environmental Science and Economics (COWI), an international consulting group.  Larsen, who is chief technical adviser for an environmental management project in Kuching, observed of the heavily polluted Sarawak River and its tributaries: “At present chemical analyses of the water are made in the river, but if the monitoring programme is to be expanded to the entire city drainage and sewer system then more economical monitoring methods are needed. The water – especially in drains and tributaries – smells. And the smell indicates that pollution in the water is at a serious level. Until we here in the laboratory can say that the water no longer smells, there is no point in implementing costly, complex chemical analyses.”

We can’t help but wonder: is our water supply dangerously contaminated with water-borne diseases like cryptosporidiosis, chemical by-products, agricultural pesticides and herbicides from polluted rivers? We don’t have a clue about the quality of our water.

Are we prepared?

What are the signs that a crisis is underway? Is the smelly water episode – when hundreds of thousands of households in Klang Valley were supplied with stinking tap water after the 26 February 2006 flood – cause for alarm? The issue is not just discharge from whichever source, be it pig or dairy farms, oxidation ponds or palm oil mills.

What horrified us is that contaminated water is being channelled into our drinking water supply system. When did we start consuming polluted water? Should we wait until the population suffers from severe or fatal water-related illnesses before we act?

Is our public-health infrastructure well equipped to handle an infectious water-borne disease outbreak? What are the long term health effects of the continuous consumption of contaminated water?

Should public apathy let greed reign with impunity? The people can tolerate public money being squandered – and maybe even their freedoms being curtailed –  but can they tolerate a silent betrayal that puts their lives and health at stake?

We are deeply concerned that our water sector lacks transparency. There is an urgent need for  the government to kick-start a transparent and comprehensive discussion on water management and privatisation to address these concerns, particularly those relating to water pollution preventive action at source. Consumers must be made more aware, water catchment areas and rivers must be preserved, waste management and sewage and waste-water treatment (and their end products) have to be stringently controlled, and rainwater must be properly managed.

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