Love thy water — waste not, dump not!

While Sungai Melaka is a great example of a successful river revival project, Sungai Kim Kim has been a dumping ground for both illegal and approved toxic effluents


IF ANYONE told you to take a dip in Sungai Melaka some 20 years ago, you might just call them crazy.

The water was so murky and most people who were familiar with the river would tell you how stinky it was then.

The river, which actually starts from the foothills in the neighbouring state of Negri Sembilan, meanders right into the Strait of Melaka.

Realising its importance in the state’s tourism business, the Melaka government had invested some RM350 million in infrastructure projects to revive and rejuvenate the river that runs through the historical city.

The efforts paid off. In recent years, thousands of tourists pay good money to take boat rides along the river as they learn more about Melaka.

One might still not take a dip in the river, but at least it doesn’t smell as bad, while the water qua- lity and colour now look more appealing than it did more than two decades ago.

Another successful revival project took place in neighbouring country Singapore. Some three decades ago, if you were hanging out around the Boat Quay and Clarke Quay area, you might still be engulfed by that certain strong fishy smell and, like Sungai Melaka, the Singapore river was not as green and clear as it is now.

Apparently, as early as 1819, there was heavy traffic on the Singapore River due to rapid urba- nisation as a result of expanding trade, which also exacerbated water pollution caused by the disposal of garbage, sewage and other by-products of industries located along the banks.

Clean up projects for both the Singapore River and Sungai Melaka are still ongoing. Most importantly, such efforts have resulted in drastic changes to both rivers that are now among the favourite tourist attractions.

Now, if only the same can be said about other rivers in Malaysia.

The clean up project at the Singapore River has resulted in drastic changes and is now among the favourite tourist attractions

Not So Clean and Clear After All

Sungai Kim Kim in Pasir Gudang, Johor, is one of the not-so-great examples of how nature should be managed.

In fact, the recent incident that shook the nation with thousands of lives affected by toxic fumes emanating from the river had somehow drawn the entire nation’s attention to the critical state of Malaysian rivers.

For years, the 13km Sungai Kim Kim has been a dumping ground for both illegal and approved toxic effluents to manufacturers in the Pasir Gudang industrial area, which made the stream a ticking time bomb.

According to the Department of Environment’s (DoE) Environmental Quality Report for 2017, Sungai Kim Kim is rated as Class III, which signals a moderately tainted river.

The DoE standards classify Malaysian rivers into five levels of contamination from Class I to Class V, of which, I represents pristine and drinkable water, while V is labelled as heavily polluted and unsafe to contain marine aquatic life.

The report stated that DoE had monitored 477 rivers in the country in 2017 and discovered that 51 rivers were considered polluted with Class III and above.

More than half of the rivers listed in the DoE’s report were in Johor alone, with 11 rivers categorised as Class III, 17 as Class IV and one with Class V.

Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change Minister Yeo Bee Yin announced in March that the number of Class V rivers had increased to 25 this year from one in 2017.

In Sungai Kim Kim’s case, the build-up of chemical wastes manifested in a toxic pollution incident this March.

The harmful fumes emitted from a concoction of chemicals that were concentrated in the river basin had spread through the Pasir Gudang area, hospitalising 2,775 residents including school- children and temporarily shutting down 111 schools.

Several waves of the toxic emission also caused residents to fall sick with breathing difficulties, especially after inhaling the unpleasant odours.

Most of the victims showed symptoms of vomiting, which suggested that air toxic pollution was at play.

The attempt to neutralise and clean up the river took a day, costing RM6.4 million which include chemical cleaning initiatives on a 1.5km stretch of the affected river.

The operation — which also involved the Malaysian Armed Forces’ chemical, biological, radio- logical and nuclear team, as well as the Fire and Rescue Department’s Hazardous Materials Unit team — cleaned a total of 900 tonnes of soil and 1,500 tonnes of polluted water.

While the incident at Sungai Kim Kim redirects some urgency to the state of Malaysian rivers, the water pollution of the streams is not a new development.

Months after the toxic pollution, a case of benzene contamination was found at Sungai Selangor, which left millions of Selangor residents without water supply for 48 hours.

The regulation states that some effluents — particularly manufacturing waste and sewages — are allowed to be discharged into the river if the amount is within the limit set by the Environmental Quality Regulations 2009.

Water quality specialist Dr Zaki Zainudin said although the authority regulates the amount of toxic effluents that can be dumped into the river, it does not mean the limits are safe for the river basin.

“When the effluents are discharged, they are hoped to be diluted by the river, and if we are speaking about contamination, the shallow rivers will have a higher chance to be impacted due to their lesser dilution.

“But, a little thought goes into how much the receiving water body can take, and what is being done in Pasir Gudang right now is a study on the river’s carrying capacity to know how much exactly the rivers can hold up,” he said.

It is not puzzling that Johor — the third-largest state by national revenue contribution — has the highest number of the contaminated rivers.

Last year, Johor’s GDP grew 5.6%, just below Selangor and Kuala Lumpur. Johor also has one of the highest number of employed persons among other states.

Sungai Kim Kim, for example, runs through Pasir Gudang’s industrial area, where more than 2,000 factories are operated, of which 250 are chemical plants.

The river is not the only polluted waterway in Pasir Gudang as other rivers — namely Sungai Tengkorak and Sungai Jelutong — had been dumped with toxic waste from the factories.

“As long as you discharge effluents into the river regardless of illegal or approved waste, you are taking the carrying capacity of the river.

“The illegal dumping is just helping the amount of effluents being dumped into the river to meet its threshold,” Zaki said.

At the state level, the competence of the state government is being questioned in protecting the lives of Johor residents.

On top of the drama are the lawsuits that had been slapped on the state government and Johor mentri besar (MB) from 160 victims of Sungai Kim Kim’s toxic pollution.

It was said that the Johor royal palace was dissatisfied with the way the state government was handling the issue, which resulted in the resignation of then-Johor MB Datuk Osman Sapian within a month after the incident.

While the contamination at the upstream can be traced to the toxic dumping, the situation at the downstream rivers holds a different story.

Zaki said each case of river pollution is subjected to the locality as pollutants at the downstream rivers are separate from issues at the upstream.

“The downstream rivers are mostly in urban cities and the major issue in pollution is the sewage, as cited by the environmental report in 2017.

“The main contributor at the downstream is sewage sources in terms of pollution loading. “As for the upstream side, it could be a different issue — particularly in terms of ammonia content. For downstream, the main sources are from animal farming and massive sewage content,” he said.

While the river cleansing efforts are appreciated, Zaki said the Malaysian waterways need to be regulated through a benchmark set to ensure the sustainability of its purification.

“What we are lacking now is the water quality target. What the authorities are doing now is measuring the compliances of the effluents, but they don’t put the target at the receiving end, the river.

“We need a water quality target blueprint for river basins based on referred river stretches,” he said.

Zaki added that the benchmark is necessary to be put in place as toxic waste and sewage are continuously being discharged to rivers.

“Rest assured that every single week is a new single-source coming into the rivers — legal or illegal.

“How do we want to make sure that these advents of new pollution sources do not deteriorate the quality of our river streams?” he said.

National Water Services Commission commissioner Faizal Parish Abdullah said of all the states, Pahang has been the most affected by contaminants that have flowed into its rivers with 2,816 hours loss of water supply in 2018.

The contaminants, which had caused water treatment plants to temporarily close 449 times last year alone, came as a result of the excessive logging and bauxite mining activities.

“Catchment and water sources are the most vulnerable points in the water system and currently are not considered as priority areas in most water safety plans.

“It is the highest risk and it needs the highest effort from the utilities and the problem has to be solved,” Faizal said.

He said the water treatment shutdowns in Pahang was due to the pollution of water intake.

“We cannot ignore the quality of the water source and it is the most important matter to focus on if we are talking about preservation because it is our drinking water source. We must make sure the water quality is good enough,” Faizal said.

He added that as of June this year, water disruptions in Pahang stood at 915 hours as a result of 124 shutdowns, surpassing Johor with 833 hours from 20 shutdowns.

Faizal said securing pollutants from entering the upstream river is a critical step in conserving the water supply as 80% of the water that goes to the treatment plants is drawn from the rivers.

“The source of our water supply is commonly thought to be coming from the dam. In fact, 80% of the water is drawn from the rivers,” he said.

Last year, Pahang’s DoE confirmed pollution at Sungai Terpai as the stream was stretching along the logging area in Sungai Lembing.

The forest around Sungai Lembing had been exploited as the trees were being felled ruthlessly by both legal and illegal logging companies.

A newspaper report recently revealed that the water in Sungai Terpai had turned murky and yellowish as a result of logging activities around Sungai Lembing which had expanded to 500ha.

In addition to logging activities, Pahang has also been the hub for bauxite mining activities, which has a triple threat to the water, air and soil around the mining area.

Due to the rampant environmental pollution, the mining activities in Pahang have been suspended since 2016.

Kuantan MP Fuziah Salleh has continuously been expressing her concerns over the effect of bauxite mining in Pahang.

According to Pahang’s DoE report in August 2015, the water quality of four rivers — namely Sungai Riau, Sungai Mabuk, Sungai Pinang and Sungai Pengorak — was at Class V, suggesting a heavily polluted waterway and unsafe for aquatic life.

However, the federal government lifted the moratorium last February due to the industry’s potential lucrative revenue generation.

In reaching a middle ground for the mining activities, Water, Land and Natural Resources Minister Dr Xavier Jayakumar said the Cabinet had agreed to draft a new standard operating procedure (SOP) that covers all aspects, from mining to export.

He said the SOP will only apply to Pahang first before the ministry reaches a measure to extend it to other states such as Johor and Terengganu.

Thousands of tourists pay good money to take boat rides along Sungai Melaka as they learn more about the state

Are We Doing Anything About It?

All the working papers and research, as well as seminars and presentation will not mean anything if the outcome remains the same year in and year out.

While much is expected from the government and authorities, particularly on enforcement efforts that could reduce the level of pollution of all the rivers in the country, Malaysians in general could still lend a hand.

For instance, Kuala Lumpur (KL) residents can now use the mobile app called River of Life (RoL) Citizen’s Eye, which forms part of the larger project of the KL River of Life Public Outreach Programme.

The RoL is a seven-year project under the Greater KL and Klang Valley initiative to transform the Klang River into a vibrant and liveable waterfront with high economic value.

Covering eight rivers with a total length of 110km, this project is divided into three major components — river cleaning (led by the Department of Irrigation and Drainage), river beautification (led by the KL City Hall) and commercia- lisation and tourism (led by the Ministry of Federal Territories).

The Citizen’s Eye allows the people to be the eyes and ears, and to immediately and efficiently record any event or activity related to river management, as well as any issue pertaining to pollution.

Perhaps the same initiative could be introduced nationwide.