As Selangor water crisis drags on, I'm glad I have my water tank

Residents of SS2, Petaling Jaya, Selangor queuing up for water with an assortment of buckets, pails and containers on 31 August 2013. -- PHOTO: THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK
Residents of SS2, Petaling Jaya, Selangor queuing up for water with an assortment of buckets, pails and containers on 31 August 2013. -- PHOTO: THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

I have a secret on my roof.

When I bought my house in Kuala Lumpur eight years ago, I had a second water tank installed. I noticed that several of my neighbours had done the same.

The reason? If the pipes stopped flowing, we could stretch our home water supply to six days instead of three.

Call it kiasu or long-term insurance, but most of us went through a long dry spell 15 years ago.

In 1998, during a regional drought, all of Kuala Lumpur and most of surrounding Selangor state suffered severe water rationing for months. The drought was caused by the dry El Nino weather phenomenon.

This was the same year that widespread burning of forests and peat lands in Sumatra started, causing haze to envelop the region for weeks.

And yes, there was also the ongoing 1997/98 Asian financial crisis at that time.

During the water rationing, water trucks were sent by the government to housing estates all over KL and Selangor - usually called the Klang Valley by Malaysians - as our taps were dry most days.

The trucks would roll by only once every three or four days - or, on alternate days if you were lucky.

We all brought out pails and jerrycans and queued up for water.

As the queues got long, tempers frayed. We all tended to rush to fill up our share from the two gushing taps under the water tank, even if the guy in front hadn't quite finished filling his pails.

And yes, kiasu people like me brought out 10 pails and jerrycans. I mean, why fill up only five vessels when you didn't know when the water trucks would come again, right?

I was living in a neighbourhood of three-storey terrace houses then - so we all had to carry the pails upstairs to use the water to clean toilets and for bathing.

A businessman neighbour, looking portly in his sarong, took to bathing right there at his car porch beside the BMW. The neighbours all looked the other way.

Today, as I see Malaysia's federal government and the Selangor state government to-ing and fro-ing on how to resolve their shared-water resources, I am glad that I had that second water tank installed.

Sure, the federal and Selangor governments said a deal could be imminent.

But I am a sceptic after seeing five years of stalemate in the discussions over water supply for KL and Selangor, the country's industrial and commercial heartland with 7.5 million people - a fifth of all Malaysians.

The crux of the negotiations is this: water assets in the Klang Valley are operated by four water concessionaires jointly owned by the federal government and the Selangor state. The assets include water collection from rivers and huge dams in Selangor, 29 treatment plants, 26,000 km of distribution pipes and 1,500 reservoirs.

This was not an issue when both the federal government and Selangor state - Malaysia's richest - were ruled by Barisan Nasional (BN). But Selangor fell to the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) opposition alliance in the 2008 elections.

The stakes in the four companies are now divided between PR's Selangor state and the BN federal government.

Federal officials in the past insisted that four companies - Puncak Niaga, Syarikat Bekalan Air Selangor (Syabas), Konsortium Abass and Syarikat Pengeluaran Air Selangor (Splash) - be sold to the central government, so a new RM3.8 billion (S$1.44 billion) water treatment plant called Langat 2 could be built quickly to avert a repeat of the 1998 water crisis.

But Selangor's PR government wants to take over the four companies instead. The water shortages, it says, are caused by shoddy maintenance of aging pipes, not a lack of water treatment capacity.

The federal government disagrees, and it’s been a stalemate since.

On Wednesday, Selangor Menteri Besar Khalid Ibrahim said a solution to the deadlocked talks is possible by the end of the year.

For me, if the talks don't reach a breakthrough, and a water crisis ensued, I have my shiny water tank to hug.

reme@sph.com.sg