KUALA LUMPUR - For six consecutive days early this month, Madam Zaharah Ramli patiently queued to fill up four pails of water to carry into her ninth story flat in PPR Kampung Baru Hicom Seksyen 26, Selangor.
The 58-year-old cleaner joined hundreds of thousands of people all over Kuala Lumpur and Selangor who were forced to wait for water tankers, as water supply to homes and industries were abruptly cut.
At least 1.2 million consumer accounts were affected when the water supply was shut from Thursday (Sept 3) to prevent pollution discharged by a factory from entering four water treatment plants. The water began flowing again from last Saturday (Sept 6) to Tuesday (Sept 8).
"At a time where we need to be frugal due to the impacts of Covid-19 pandemic, I had to use my money to buy water because it's not enough. I cannot afford this," she told The Straits Times.
"I'm very upset, especially when my husband and I are still trying to find our footing after recently being laid off. I hope this won't happen again," she said. Her husband had worked as a security guard.
While most Malaysians have moved since the incident, it remains unclear how the authorities are preparing for the next supply disruption, beyond giving reassuring words.
Federal Territories Minister Annuar Musa said last Saturday: "A long-term solution needs to be found, including the Federal Territories having its own water authority as well as having a back-up or alternative (water) supply system. This needs to be explored immediately."
Environment and Water Minister Tuan Ibrahim Tuan Man on the same day also said that the Environmental Quality Act and the Water Services Act would be amended to raise penalties for causing supply disruption.
He said the government is also looking at setting up an environmental crimes unit to tackle illegal activities that threaten the country's natural resources.
Water is a complex issue in Malaysia, as it often involves political relations between the federal and state governments, federal and state laws and the various stakeholders such as water-asset management companies.
Added to this is the fast rise of new condominiums, office towers and industrial estates coming up in the Klang Valley - Malaysia's most densely populated districts that include the federal territories of Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya and districts in southern Selangor.
This means that the water assets must constantly be upgraded to to keep up with demand.
"Klang Valley is exponentially increasing. Because the demand is high and the supply is less, there were shortages," Selangor MP Charles Santiago told The Straits Times. He was formerly chairman of National Water Services Commission, or SPAN.
The lack of deep water reserves in KL-Putrajaya-Selangor - which would alleviate abrupt water-supply cuts - were to be addressed with the Langat 2 project, he said.
The project is expected to be fully completed by 2023.
The project, involving raw water transferred from Pahang to Selangor, had been for long years hindered by politics, as then federal Barisan Nasional (BN) government was at loggerheads with the federal opposition parties that won power in Selangor in 2008.
In urging the federal government to rectify the frequent water supply disruptions, non-governmental organisation on Friday (Sept 11) asked for a Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) to be set up to uncover what had happened and future steps to take.
"The best way to investigate and find a solution to the problem is to establish a RCI to address the never ending disruptions that are happening only in Selangor," said president M. Selventhiranhe of the National Prosperous Unity Association . "An action plan should be laid to put a stop to this all too often water cuts in Selangor."
SELANGOR, KL, PUTRAJAYA SHARE WATER RESOURCES
Selangor state, the federal territories of Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya- generally called the Klang Valley - share the same water resources.
The Klang Valley is the most densely populated district in the country, with about seven million people.
Klang Valley consumes 3,243 million litres a day in 2017, up 6.39 per cent compared to 2014, and a third of the total amount of treated water consumed in the whole of Malaysia.
In comparison, Singapore, with 5.7 million residents, consumes 430 million gallons a day, said national water agency PUB on its website. This is about 1,628 million litres a day.
Water assets in Malaysia are generally controlled by federal government under the Water Services Industry Act (WSIA) 2006.
The water assets comprise rivers and reservoirs in Selangor, water treatment plants and the network of mostly underground distribution pipes.
According to Selangor Chief Minister Amirudin Shari, the water reserve margins in the past had been as low as three per cent. But this increased to 10 per cent when the first and second phase of the Langat 2 Water Treatment project began operating in January this year.
Langat 2 is part of the Pahang-Selangor Raw Water Transfer project costing RM8 billion (S$2.63 billion).
The project includes the transfer of raw river water from neighbouring Pahang state, piping the water through a 45km tunnel under mountains from Pahang to Selangor, and ending at the treatment plant in Hulu Langat, Selangor.
The project is slated for completion is 2023.
Upon completion, the plant would be able to provide 1,130 million litres per day to residents in the Klang Valley, with the volume at least doubling since 20 years ago.
The complications weren't helped by previous government interventions.
In 1994, the BN federal government privatised the water entity of Jabatan Bekalan Air Selangor (JBAS), or the Selangor water supply department.
The profitable water treatment services of JBAS were moved to private hands while the loss-making water distribution business was kept by the state government.
Three water treatment companies - Puncak Niaga, Syarikat Pengeluar Air Sungai Selangor (Splash) and Konsortium Abbas - were granted 20 to 25-year concessions to treat water and sell it to JBAS for distribution.
JBAS was later corporatised by under the BN administration as Perbadanan Urus Air Selangor (Puas), or water management authority of Selangor.
While the three companies made profits, JBAS and later Puas made losses.
Puas itself was privatised in 2005 and renamed Syarikat Bekalan Air Selangor (Syabas), a subsidiary of Puncak Niaga.
By 2008, when federal opposition parties led by Parti Keadilan Rakyat took over Selangor, a plan had been worked out to consolidate the water assets of these four players and hand them over to the BN government.
It took more than a decade before the last of four companies, Splash, agreed to sell their water assets - reservoirs, treatment plants and piping systems - to Selangor.