Klang Valley water disruption: Why does it happen so often?

Residents of Sri Penaga Apartment queue to collect water from a Syabas water tanker in Puchong October 9, 2018. — Picture by Miera Zulyana
Residents of Sri Penaga Apartment queue to collect water from a Syabas water tanker in Puchong October 9, 2018. — Picture by Miera Zulyana

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KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 6 — The Klang Valley just suffered a week-long disruption in water supply, the latest episode in what almost feels like the norm these past few years.

But is anyone to blame for these unexpected interruptions in water supply? Or is it just a combination of high population, old pipes and other factors?

We take a closer look at the water issue in the Klang Valley.

So why does it keep happening here?

While other states in the country suffer from water issues as well, the Klang Valley’s (Selangor and the federal territories of Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya) water woes frequently grab national headlines.

There’s a good reason for this. Malaysia’s total population, as of 2018, is 32.3823 million, with the most populous state Selangor recording 6.475 million residents, while Kuala Lumpur has 1.79 million and Putrajaya 97,200, according to the Department of Statistics Malaysia’s (DOSM) latest figures released last month.

This means that the Klang Valley with a combined population of 8.36 million accounts for 25.8 per cent or one-fourth of the entire population of Malaysia.

(In its 2017 performance report, Pengurusan Air Selangor Sdn Bhd said it manages the water supply services for 2,223,928 accounts or about 11 million customers in the Klang Valley.)

How often do water cuts happen in the Klang Valley?

In Malaysia, water supply disruptions are either scheduled (usually for maintenance and upgrading of water supply facilities) or unscheduled.

According to the Ministry of Water, Land and Natural Resources’ (KATS) latest available figures, Selangor is consistently the state that suffered the most number of unscheduled water supply interruptions for the years 2014 to 2017.

(Since no separate figures are provided for the federal territories of Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya, Selangor’s figures may possibly cover the Klang Valley).

KATS’s figures show Selangor topping the list for unscheduled water cuts by accounting for 84,796 of 174,997 nationwide incidents in 2014, 81,969 of 167,055 incidents throughout the country in 2015, although this has fallen considerably to 19,061 out of 61,517 incidents in 2017.

 

As for scheduled water cuts, Selangor also topped the nationwide list generally with 2,256 incidents in 2014, 1,760 incidents (2015) and 798 incidents (2017).

Selangor residents have made their complaints over water supply disruptions clear, with 111,025 such complaints in 2018, although this is less than the 133,353 complaints recorded in 2017, based on a written reply in the Selangor state assembly this year.

(KATS’s latest figures recorded 161,489 complaints in Selangor about water supply interruptions in 2017, an improvement from previous years of 238,835 complaints (2016), 235,650 (2015) and 236,521 (2014).)

But why so many?

Here are some of the top reasons for the multiple unscheduled interruptions to water supply in Selangor, based on information gleaned from written replies in Parliament and the Selangor state legislative assembly (DUN), as well as water cut announcements:

1. Burst pipes, pipe leakages

The Selangor government had in 2017 explained in the Selangor DUN that old water pipes that tend to burst are usually the asbestos cement type, revealing the scale of the problem as 6,000 kilometres of such pipes currently exist in Selangor, Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya.

The Selangor government said in 2017 these pipes would be replaced in stages based on a list of hot spots where the situation is most critical, but said that the allocation then was only sufficient to replace 422.5 kilometres of these pipes.

How frequently are there burst pipe cases in Selangor? The Selangor government said there were 5,101 cases in 2015, 5,782 cases in 2016 and 2,716 cases for the January-June 2017 period.

And these pipe repair works cost RM22.83 million (RM22,830,066) in 2016 and RM10.145 million (RM10,145,010) for the January-May 2017 period.

Air Selangor allocated RM487.56 million from 2016 to 2019 to replace these pipes, the Selangor government said this year in the Selangor DUN.

On top of the allocation for pipe replacements, the funds set aside this year to repair Selangor’s burst pipes and leaking pipes is RM21.54 million and RM97.26 million respectively.

In summary, the bill in the past few years for either fixing or replacing the pipes in Selangor/ Klang Valley is at least RM639 million based on the information above.

2. Non-revenue water (NRW)

Non-revenue water is the term used for treated water that is lost before it reaches consumers, including via physical losses such as pipe leaks or water theft.

According to the Ministry of Energy Green Technology and Water’s (KeTTHA) data as of 2017, 33.6 per cent of water in Selangor was lost in 2014, which improved to 32 per cent in 2015.

While other states had higher NRW levels such as Perlis, Sabah, Pahang at more than 50 per cent and Kelantan (around 49 per cent) and Kedah (around 46 per cent) for those two years, the amount of NRW lost in Selangor is actually the largest nationwide in terms of volume at 1,545 million litres per day (2014) and 1,497 million litres per day (2015).

 

Efforts have been taken to steadily trim the level of NRW, with Air Selangor reporting in its 2017 performance report that it had reduced Selangor’s NRW level from 32.2 per cent in 2016 to 30.1 per cent in 2017.

On January 8, 2018, Air Selangor CEO Suhaimi Kamaralzaman said the NRW reduction from 2015’s 32.6 per cent to 2017’s 30.1 per cent is equivalent to 82 million litres per day or about the same as the total water produced by the Sg. Labu water treatment plan.

He had then said Air Selangor plans to invest over RM900 million over the 2018-2020 period to further reduce NRW levels to 28 per cent by 2020, having noted that the latest technologies were already in use such as high-tech leak detectors and smart monitoring and control of water pressure, as well as smartphone apps to enable immediate repairs of pipe leaks.

According to the March 25, 2019 Hansard, the Selangor mentri besar said the state government plans for the NRW level to be reduced to 20 per cent in 2035.

3. Pollution

Out of the many reasons for the shutting down of water treatment plants that would then in turn cause water supply cuts, pollution is probably the worst one --- caused by factors such as illegal factories and illegal waste dumping.

The type of pollution can vary from excessive rubbish at the raw water intake point before water is treated at water treatment plants, diesel spills, as well as the release of untreated sewage water and dumping of liquid waste that can cause high levels of ammonia which cannot be sufficiently diluted during low water levels in rivers.

The cost of pollution-triggered shutdowns of water treatment plants’ operations is illustrated with the examples below:

In the November 9, 2016 Hansard for the Selangor DUN, Selangor exco member Zaidy Abdul Talib said the Emergency Response Plan (ERP) activated by Air Selangor for each time water treatment plants are shut down has cost RM6.9 million for the 2013-October 17, 2016 period.

As for the cleaning works at premises that caused the 2016 pollution at Sungai Semenyih with four shutdowns, an estimated total of RM21 million was spent, the Selangor DUN was told.

4. Other factors

Other reasons for water supply interruptions include the temporary closure of water treatment plants due to equipment failure or power supply disruptions or reduced supply in raw water, as well as emergency or scheduled maintenance works on the water supply systems.

Burst pipes caused by third parties such as for construction works for highways, the MRT or LRT have also been cited as reasons contributing to water cuts.

Low water levels at dams during the dry season is a key factor in water supply cuts, particularly during the 2014 water crisis in Selangor.

The growing challenge?

Providing water to meet the demands of Klang Valley is a huge, huge task with the government’s latest available figures showing Selangor accounting for around 30 per cent of the water used nationwide for each year of the 2014-2017 period.

Selangor consumed 3,048 million litres of water per day (MLD) in 2014, and it has been growing year by year to 3,178 (2015), 3,219 (2016).

In 2017, Selangor used 3,243 of 10,786 million litres consumed per day nationwide, the Ministry of Water, Land and Natural Resources’ numbers showed.

It’s hard to imagine how much water is used up in Selangor every day, but 3,243 million litres is roughly equal to 1,297 Olympic-sized swimming pools (with 2.5 million litres capacity) being used daily in 2017.

 

Faced with increasing demand and a growing population, the Selangor government’s solution has been to find more sources for raw water, and to build more water treatment plants, while also seeking to increase its reserves of water supply from rates as low as 2.2 per cent in 2016 to 15 per cent.

Is there a concern over sustainability?

In its announcements on water supply disruptions and restoration, Air Selangor usually includes a note asking consumers to be prudent with their use of water.

But is there a strong incentive to not be wasteful if water is cheap or even free?

On March 25, 2019, the Selangor mentri besar had acknowledged that the state’s campaign to promote the saving of water had not been effective, suggesting it could be due to some not being appreciative of water due to the state’s free water programme and the moderate water tariff levels.

In a written response to a July 4, 2019 question in the Dewan Rakyat, the Ministry of Water, Land and Natural Resources said the low average water tariff rate of RM1.38 per 1,000 litres does not reflect the actual cost of preparing water supply services at RM2.31.

“This situation if allowed to continue will put the water operator in a weak financial position. As a result, quality water supply services cannot be provided to consumers,” the ministry said.

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