On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Time to clean up our act

It has the lowest non-revenue water rate and despite having the lowest water tariff, PBA Holdings Bhd as a government-linked company is still able to generate good returns to its shareholders. 

But living in Selangor after 20 years in the Klang Valley has been a different experience altogether. Every household seems to have water filters of all sizes, shapes and specifications, some bigger than the size of a gas cylinder, often set up in their gardens. 

It's obvious that the water quality in the country's most developed state is bad. Any consumer can tell you this; you don't have to be an expert.  

Sure, there is no disruption to water supply but the quality is something else. It has gone from bad to worse, really. All the filters will not help unless we clean up our act – which means ensuring the source of our water is not polluted, particularly at mid-stream. 

Even as the Government continues to replace asbestos cement pipes, it is essential that there must be better quality control at the treatment plants. 

Last week, Energy, Water and Communications Minister Datuk Seri Dr Lim Keng Yaik announced that the privatisation of water supply has been put on hold and no more water concessions would be given out. He said the Government was open to the idea of state governments entering into joint ventures. 

State governments, he said, could go into joint ventures with people who had the expertise and money to run and enhance water services. The privatisation of water supply is within the powers of the state. What Lim said is in fact what many non-governmental organisations have long advocated – you don't privatise water supply. 

Water is an essential commodity and with predictions of water becoming scarce, the argument that privatisation is better no longer holds water.  

All private companies need to pay higher dividends to satisfy their shareholders and the only way to do so is to increase tariffs – at the public's expense. 

A GLC or a government agency, on the other hand, is able to balance the social responsibilities better against a profit-oriented private concern. For ordinary Malaysians, they would prefer water, as a critical resource, to be in the hands of the Government rather than a corporation or an individual. 

The situation becomes murky, as in Selangor, where the government has separated the low-risk water treatment function and the high-risk distribution, pipeline maintenance and billing functions. 

Put the business of water aside, the fact is that it has become globally recognised that the world is running short of fresh water resources, even though water is considered renewable. 

Malaysia is no exception and it does not help that we have treated our rivers as rubbish dumps with over half of our rivers reportedly dead because they have been polluted by raw or partially treated sewerage. 

Interbasin and interstate water transfers are expected to become an increasingly common feature of water resources development planning. 

Two of the world's water experts, Tony Clarke and Maude Barrow, have reportedly described the situation in a more dramatic way – the world is running out of water. 

In their 2003 report, they predicted that by 2025, the world population would increase to 2.6 billion more than the present day and water demands would exceed availability by 56%. 

There will be disputes in water-scarcity areas and frictions would be inevitable. The fact is that there is already a war over water. 

In Darfur, Sudan, the fight over water is more evident than ever and Israel and Palestine have locked horns not just over land but over the control of the Jordan River. 

Nearer to home, the dispute between Malaysia and Singapore over water remains unsettled. It is hard for Malaysians with a blessed eco-system to imagine that the water that they drink from our taps may just dry up one day. 

It seems so far fetched and so unimaginable that we give so little thought to keeping our rivers clean.  

But the fact is that we can no longer just dismiss such warnings as wild thoughts from alarmist environmentalists. 

The world did not take the global warming warning seriously and the consequences are being felt and seen now. Let's renew our commitment to protect our water supplies as we celebrate World Environment Day on Tuesday – do it for the sake of our young Malaysians.