New laws, surveillance drones deployed in Selangor to combat water pollution crisis

   At least eight incidents of water pollution have occurred this year, with more than a million having their water supply disrupted.
At least eight incidents of water pollution have occurred this year, with more than a million having their water supply disrupted.PHOTO: THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia’s Selangor state will introduce tough new laws and surveillance drones to tackle water pollution, but experts and environmentalists say these measures do not go far enough to safeguard water sources.

There have been at least eight incidents this year alone where chemicals and other pollutants have been dumped in rivers, leading to unscheduled water cuts to more than 1.1 million consumer accounts in parts of Selangor and the capital Kuala Lumpur in the past few months.

The state government has proposed relocating factories away from rivers that supply Selangor and Kuala Lumpur. While welcoming the move, critics said the wider issue of enforcement and cooperation between agencies needs to be addressed.

"Rivers must come under national security. Police and other enforcement authorities could supervise with the help of CCTV and other technologies," said Selangor lawmaker Charles Santiago, who is also former National Water Services Commission chairman.

The real problem however, he said, is the lack of inter-agency cooperation.

Many companies approved by local councils to dispose of chemicals often do so through third parties.

"The problem is that the third party which collects the waste is not monitored. The trucks should have a monitoring device attached to it so that it reaches the recycling centre, and will not deviate to another place. This falls under the Road Transport Department, while the Department of Environment is in charge of monitoring chemical and waste disposal," he said.

Companies are required to dispose of the waste at a hazardous waste management centre, but some companies and industrial waste disposal contractors try to save money by dumping it elsewhere.

There are 15,500 licensed factories near the basins of Selangor and Semenyih rivers.

The factories now have to ensure that they produce zero discharge, or relocate to a special industrial area.

"For the illegal factories near the river banks, we are taking stern enforcement action to close them down," state executive councillor Ng Sze Han told The Straits Times, adding that 698 factories have been newly licensed in an ongoing legalisation programme since 2006.

These were factories with temporary business licences that had yet to meet technical conditions such as land status, zoning or planning requirements.

Selangor, Malaysia's richest state, will also be deploying four drones at the end of November to monitor suspicious activities and take water samples at Sungai Selangor and Sungai Langat riverbanks, whose large size and remote locations make surveillance a challenge.

The state assembly also passed a bill this month to enhance laws against polluters.

Amendments include a mandatory jail sentence, and raising the fine to a minimum of RM200,000  (S$65,600) and up to RM1 million.

Environmentalists agree that mandatory jail terms are crucial, but suggested the use of water quality monitoring systems and spending more money on enforcement.

"The measures proposed may contribute to the solution but are only a fraction of measures that are needed," said Global Environment Centre director Faizal Parish.

"Closing down or relocating polluting factories can help but the focus on factories near river banks is wrong. Even factories far from the river can discharge pollution into drains or tributaries. We must look at all pollution sources."

He also noted that drones may be useful if the pollutants are coloured and visible, but not if they are colourless.

He also pointed out that some factories were recently caught pouring pollutants down toilets in their premises, which would be impossible to detect from outside.

"We need to follow the experience elsewhere where it is mandatory for factories to install a real-time water quality monitoring system at their discharge point that immediately notifies authorities in case of a breach. This is done in China and elsewhere," Mr Faizal said.