By RASYIKAH MD KHALID
At end-February 2019, Minister of Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change Yeo Bee Yin revealed that there were 25 ‘dead’ rivers in Malaysia.
Sixteen of the rivers were in Johor, five in Selangor, three in Penang and one in Melaka. These rivers were categorised under Class 4 and 5, reserved for rivers that are highly polluted and in which aquatic life cannot survive.
According to the National Water Quality Standards, Malaysia’s main rivers are divided into three categories, namely clean, slightly polluted and polluted.
After their water quality is tested, the rivers are then divided into six classes – Class 1, 2A, 2B, 3, 4 and 5. There are 12 parameters to determine their water quality and these include Biochemical Oxygen Demand (BOD) and Ammoniacal Nitrogen (NH3N).
The main contributor to BOD is garbage, while the main contributor to NH3N is animal faeces and sewage water.
Not long after the discussion pertaining to Malaysia’s dead rivers, the toxic waste pollution in Sungai Kim Kim in Pasir Gudang, Johor, shocked the nation.
In fact, Sungai Kim Kim became a household name after reports emerged on March 7 that 103 students and residents had to be hospitalised after they inhaled a gas suspected to be toxic. Initial investigations by the authorities showed that the gas was emitted by chemicals dumped into Sungai Kim Kim.
On March 11, the second wave of poisoning took effect and 106 new victims were hospitalised. A few days later, the number escalated to 1,000, with eight of them admitted to the intensive care unit. The gas concerned can be absorbed by the human body through the respiratory tract and also the skin.
Several toxic gases were emitted following the interaction of the chemicals concerned with water and air.
The gases include acrylonitrile, xylene, methane and toluene which, if inhaled, can cause headache, nausea, fainting and breathing difficulty.
The Sungai Kim Kim crisis is unique because it started with water pollution, followed by air pollution. From the legal aspect, enforcement of water pollution is complicated due to the overlapping jurisdictions of the authorities concerned.
Under the Environmental Quality Act (EQA) 1974, the Department of Environment (DOE) only has the power to summon polluters at the federal level. As such, the DOE cannot take action against illegal or unlicensed factories, wet markets, food stalls and squatters.
It is not unreasonable to say that this division of jurisdiction has led to many cases involving the pollution of rivers going unprosecuted.
This was evident in 2016 when Sungai Semenyih in Selangor was hit by an odour pollution, the source of which was an illegal factory.
The pollution forced the Semenyih treatment plant to be shut down, severing water supply to almost two million people.
Initially, DOE did not want to take action because the errant factory was illegal but the state government ordered integrated enforcement by all the parties concerned, including the local authority.
In the case of Sungai Kim Kim, the pollution has been going on for a long time. Sungai Kim Kim is a Class 3 river, which means that it is polluted and requires intensive treatment.
It is usual for factories to discharge their wastes into rivers during heavy rainfall to enable the pollutants to dissolve and be washed away with the rushing water.
However, of late the weather has been hot and that was why the chemical waste dumped into Sungai Kim Kim reacted with the water and heat to produce toxic gases that posed a danger to the public.
If the chemicals had not reacted and if it had rained as usual, Sungai Kim Kim’s pollution would have gone unnoticed.
The Sungai Kim Kim pollution case is an important case to be judged in terms of enforcement and environmental protection.
Almost half of Malaysia’s main rivers have ended up being polluted due to the lack of effective enforcement action against the polluters, whether at the federal level or otherwise.
This is why the polluters or culprits, regardless of whether they are illegal factories or individuals, continue to treat rivers as their garbage bin. Their actions will cause more of our rivers to be polluted and eventually be declared dead.
In the case of Sungai Kim Kim, early intervention by the authorities concerned saw the toxic waste being cleaned up promptly, putting a stop to the toxic gas emissions.
But the central issue here which will remain unresolved is the pollution of Malaysia’s rivers by licensed and unlicensed factories, wet markets, livestock farms, restaurants, food stalls, squatters and even individuals who dispose of their rubbish indiscriminately.
As long as humans do not regard the river as a living entity that plays a very important role in their lives, the pollution issue will persist.
It is important that communities be made aware of river pollution. This is because rivers are our source of water, without which we cannot possibly live.
The lackadaisical attitude of communities that leave the entire job of preserving and conserving our rivers to the authorities will do little to change the fate of those rivers that are now almost lifeless.
Our homes may not be situated close to a river but, in truth, we are living on its basin. The basin is actually a catchment area from where water flows into a tributary and finally into the main river itself.
Every piece of trash discarded indiscriminately by the community will be swept into the drainage system before it floats to the retention pond, then the tributary and river and, finally, into the sea.
Many people also have the flawed perception that the water that runs from their taps originates from the clean dams. They are unaware that the water they use daily is actually water that has undergone treatment after being sourced from the mostly polluted downstream rivers.
The more polluted the river water is, the higher the cost of treating it. And, should there be any rise in the water tariff, there will be people protesting against it – these are the same people who don’t mind spending hundreds of ringgit on their Internet bills.
Hopefully, all parties – residents, local authorities and factory operators – will learn from the Sungai Kim Kim crisis and realise the importance of taking care of the environment, especially rivers.
The authorities must constantly monitor the activities of factories along the river while factory operators must comply with the regulations and not think of profits alone by dumping their waste into the river.
The local communities, meanwhile, should serve as the eyes and ears of the local authorities and report any suspicious activities. Hopefully, the parties responsible for the pollution of Sungai Kim Kim have regretted their actions and there will be no recurrence of the episode. – Bernama
- Associate Prof Dr Rasyikah Md Khalid, is the deputy dean (Research and Innovation) at the Faculty of Law, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.)