SEPTEMBER 10 — Kedah menteri besar Sanusi Md Nor has shot down a proposed regional authority to manage water resources in Ulu Muda, saying it would impinge on the state’s sovereignty and land rights.

Sanusi said the proposed authority was a form of interference in Kedah’s rights over land matters, especially forests. Sanusi accused Penang of refusing to pay for the water supply it draws from Sungai Muda and that Kedah had lost out on logging revenue by not allowing logging in the Ulu Muda area to protect the water catchment area.

Penang Deputy Chief Minister II P. Ramasamy responded by saying that the establishment of a regional water authority to conserve, manage and regulate water supply in the Ulu Muda water catchment area was not an affront to the rights of Kedah nor its sovereignty.

Lest it be forgotten, Parliament amended the Ninth Schedule of the Federal Constitution to include water supplies and services (subject to the Federal List) in the Concurrent List. Accordingly, water supplies and services are now shared between the States and the Federal Government under the Concurrent list, 9D of Article 95B (1) (b) of the Federal Constitution.

File picture shows low level water reserve at the Air Itam dam and reservoir in Penang. — Malay Mail pic
File picture shows low level water reserve at the Air Itam dam and reservoir in Penang. — Malay Mail pic

The objective of the amendment was to strengthen the role of the Federal Government in state water governance and to make the water sector in the country more efficient, giving the Federal Government authority over the water services in the States. The Tenth Schedule was also amended and as a result, the revenue from water supplies and services (previously assigned to the States) is now assigned to the Federal Government.

The amendments were part of efforts to improve the quality of water supply and the efficiency of the industry’s services. There was also to be a separation of responsibilities between water asset owners and operators. State water operators would no longer be responsible for developing water infrastructure and its funding so that they could concentrate solely on providing water services to consumers and improving their operational efficiency.

The responsibilities of developing water infrastructure and sourcing for its funding has now been transferred to Pengurusan Aset Air Berhad (PAAB), a wholly owned company of the Minister of Finance Inc. PAAB was incorporated on 5 May 2006 with the objective of being the holding company for the nation’s water assets.

PAAB main responsibility is to develop the nation’s water infrastructure in Peninsular Malaysia and the Federal Territory of Labuan, using competitive financing sourced and obtained from the private financial market. The water assets are then leased to water operators licensed by the industry regulator, Suruhanjaya Perkhidmatan Air Negara (SPAN) for operations and maintenance.

SPAN is established under the SPAN Act 2006 (Act 654). The Act was passed together with the Water Services Industry Act 2006 (Act 655). The latter is the primary legislation providing for the executive authority for the management and protection of public water supply, and is a federal law.

SPAN has since been the executive authority relating to the water supply system and water supply services throughout Peninsular Malaysia and the Federal Territories of Putrajaya and Labuan.

Water falls under both Federal and State law under the Concurrent List as defined in the Federal Constitution. But the executive authority is now vested in the Federal Government.

The Federal Government is the authority on water supplies and services, like it is also the authority on public health. It should therefore take responsibility and put in place measures in the same way as it is doing for the Covid-19 - an infectious disease affecting public health.

The primary legislation on infectious diseases is the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases Act 1988 (Act 342), which similarly is a federal law.

If state health authorities must not work in silos when fighting Covid-19, as director-general of health Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah often reminded, the same applies to water supply.

The management and protection of public water supply has been legislated since 2006 as a federal matter.

The seeming spat between the states of Kedah and Penang is therefore not in the spirit of the constitutional amendments to make the governance of the water sector in the country more efficient.

Federal and state authorities should be working together, hand in hand.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.