Not fair to claim compensation for water disruption

Photo used for illustration purposes only

by Ishak Hasnan

KUALA LUMPUR – On Sept 3, consumers in the Klang Valley were struck by yet another disruption in water supply due to water pollution. This time, it involved 1.2 million account holders.

Air Selangor workers toiled day and night to supply water to the affected users via tankers. Other states helped out by sending their water tankers to Selangor, with the efforts coordinated by SPAN (National Water Services Commission).

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It is usual for water operators to lend a helping hand to states facing a water supply crisis.

Consumers were forced to wait in long queues to get water and then carry the pails of water back to their houses. It was a torturous time for consumers as their daily routines were disrupted.

Some people urged Air Selangor to provide discounts to consumers. There were also calls for Air Selangor to pay compensation of RM1,000 to every affected user.

They probably have their own reasons to demand a discount and compensation for the hardship they endured.

As a water operator, Air Selangor also has its own justification for not considering the merits of their demands.

Water operations in Peninsular Malaysia are regulated by SPAN under the Water Services Industry Act 2006, which clearly states that the duty of the water operator is to extract raw water (from rivers or other sources), treat it in water treatment plants (WTPs) and distribute clean water to users via reservoirs and pipelines right up to their meters.

The water operator is also tasked with maintaining water infrastructure assets as prescribed by the states. The water operator is allowed to impose a charge on users by issuing a bill to them.

The tariff, however, is determined by the state government while other charges are fixed by SPAN. The water operator is given a licence to perform only the duties prescribed to them.

Assets such as WTPs, reservoirs and pipelines, including the land sites, are owned by Perbadanan Aset Air Bhd. This clearly shows that the water operator is not involved in the management of water resources.

Meanwhile, water catchment areas, rivers and other raw water resources, as well as areas near riverbanks, are managed and administered by a host of agencies in accordance with their respective field and scope of work.

Among the parties involved are the land office, Irrigation and Drainage Department, Department of Environment, local councils, Mineral and Geoscience Department, SPAN and state water regulatory bodies such as LUAS (Selangor Water Management Authority).

Each agency has its own Act to carry out its roles in accordance with the prescribed terms of reference and jurisdiction. When an incident involving water pollution is reported, the agencies concerned will take action in accordance with the provisions outlined in their respective legislation.

This, once again, clearly shows that the water operator has no authority in the management of raw water resources. Hence, is it fair to ask water operators such as Air Selangor to offer a discount and pay compensation as a result of an incident that is outside their jurisdiction?

Some quarters also suggested that consumers be paid compensation for water supply disruptions as practised in the United Kingdom.

But it should be known that many countries in Europe practice the integrated water resources management system whereby all matters related to water – whether it is drinking water or water for agriculture or sewage or for other purposes – are managed in an integrated manner.

The tariffs imposed on consumers in those countries are far higher than Malaysia’s tariffs.

For instance, the tariff for one cubic metre of water in the UK is US$4.29, Germany US$4.97, the Netherlands US$3.99 and Norway US$3.93. The average water tariff in Malaysia is just US$0.44 per cubic metre.

In this respect, it is not fair at all to compare Malaysian water operators with Europe’s water supply industry.

Malaysian consumers, however, can request for hardship compensation from other agencies but not from water operators.

This is clearly stated in Chapter 2 (56) (8) of the Water Services Industry Act.

Each time disruption in water supply occurs, everyone – regardless of whether they are domestic or commercial users – will be inconvenienced.

Some factories and commercial premises may be forced to halt their operations temporarily. Traders will face losses as they cannot operate their businesses.

Water operators will also face losses as they cannot sell their water to users. Not only that, they also have to bear the cost of supplying water to consumers via tankers.

It is understood that Air Selangor has to spend millions of ringgit to hire water tankers and pay for other costs whilst waiting for the WTPs to resume operations. Water operators are burdened by these costs. In short, all parties will suffer and suffer losses whenever disruption in water supply occurs.

The water supply industry is always grappling with various challenges. The Malaysian Water Industry Status & Outlook Report (Edition 2020/21), published by the Malaysian Water Association, outlines the list of challenges faced by the water supply industry according to their weighted score (ws).

The five biggest challenges are:

  1. Tariff Adjustment/Restructuring … 70ws
  2. Integrated Water Resource Management … 45ws
  3. Non-Revenue Water … 43ws
  4. Pollution Management … 36ws
  5. New Water Sources … 35ws

All these challenges need to be addressed as effectively as possible. Otherwise, our nation’s water supply industry will end up facing more critical problems which will certainly affect the quality of water supply services.

When this happens, everyone will suffer and incur losses.

All stakeholders, including consumers, must cooperate to address these challenges to ensure that our water supply industry functions smoothly, as well as improve the quality of service so that it is on par with that of developed countries.

The writer Ishak Hasnan is the chairman of the Malaysian Water Engineers Action Committee (MyWAC). This article reflects the personal views of the writer.

— BERNAMA