Don’t muddy the water issue

The water saga between the Selangor government and water operator Syabas took another turn in the latest episode of the Wangsa Maju pump station fiasco that affected more than 27,000 households in the Klang Valley. It is easy to confuse the many issues, thereby muddying them together. But first, some facts.

The Wangsa Maju pump house – which is made up of 4 pumps and 1 for standby purposes – broke down on 29th December last year and 1st January, and since then the blame game has ensued between both parties accusing the other of being at fault. The pump house has a design capacity of 180mld (million litres per day) in total.

Syabas claims that the failure was due to “operating above its design capacity for a long period of time in recent years” (Syabas, 15 January 2013). Selangor state checks, however, revealed that throughout 2012, the pumps operated beyond its capacity of 200mld for only 18 days out of the whole year.

The central issue here is whether or not the pumps have actually been well-maintained to operate consistently without breaking down. The responsibility to maintain these pumps falls under Syabas and not the Selangor government. According to standard operating procedure, ‘preventive periodic maintenance’ is a basic requirement that should have been conducted by specific capable contractors. This was apparently conducted up to 2008, after which it was only done whenever a pump was damaged.

Prevention is surely better than cure, something any water operator should have known at the outset. No regular checks by the appropriate technical experts were carried out, and this was the primary reason for the breakdown. Even if Syabas employees did routine inspection, why did they not realise the pumps were already faulty, and thereafter immediately alert their superiors? In fact, it was revealed that one of the five pumps was already reported as faulty since last year and this was not addressed.

This brings us to the next issue of good governance. The water industry is regulated by SPAN (National Water Services Commission). Syabas has unfortunately demonstrated its inability to manage its equipment efficiently, when it should have investigated the root problem even before it became a problem by following SOPs and best practices.

SPAN together with its Ministry of Energy, Green Technology and Water should use this perfect opportunity to correct any inefficiencies in the water delivery system. Failure to reprimand only means it is silently supporting incompetency. It is not clear whether SPAN had in fact instructed Syabas (or rather, Puncak Niaga Sdn Bhd, the actual pump operator) to make urgent corrective measures.

Added to this is a revelation in the Auditor-General’s Audit Report for the operating period of 2009-2011, which showed amongst other things that the funds Syabas received for capital expenditure (capex) from the Selangor government were actually used for operating expenditure (opex). If such funds were necessary for the upgrading of water pumps, then they should not have been misallocated.

Syabas would have us believe that this has everything to do with the supposed water shortage in Selangor and the need for the monstrosity of the Langat 2 plant and Pahang-Selangor water transfer project. This doesn’t make sense, since the Langat 2 plant was slated for completion in 2014 anyway. The Wangsa Maju plant failure has nothing to do with Langat 2.

In earlier columns, I stated that this RM9 billion mega-project should be reconsidered in preference of other solutions like upgrading existing plants, rainwater harvesting, water recycling and treatment of Selangor’s raw water resources.

Some have also raised the question of why the Selangor government lays the blame squarely on Syabas when it holds 30% of its shares. Although this means attending board meetings and access to documents, Selangor is still the minority shareholder, and has no role in dealing with day to day operations. In fact, the federal government through its Finance Ministry Incorporated holds the golden share of Syabas, which allows them to flex some muscles. Nowhere in the concession agreement (which, by the way, is also signed by the federal government) does it say that maintenance of pump stations falls under the jurisdiction of the state government.

Finally, enter political drama. In a blatant fish-for-votes speech, Prime Minister Najib Razak promised to resolve Selangor’s water woes if Barisan Nasional is given the mandate to govern the state in the upcoming general election. This is most distasteful indeed, which basically says that until and unless Barisan retakes the Selangor government, the federal government will do nothing and sit idly by as the people suffer the misfortunes of an inefficient company.

Under Section 191(5) of the Water Services Commission Act 2006, the Minister has the right to determine what amounts to national interest issues, and this determination would be “final and binding”. This means the Minister – and through its regulator SPAN – would be empowered to make the best decision to resolve the water problems of Selangor, whether it means termination, restructuring, or migration to a new regime. Such action must be taken regardless of political support, and the people of Kuala Lumpur, Selangor and Putrajaya deserve better.

(First published in theSun, 25th January 2013.)

Tricia Yeoh blogs on triciayeoh.com

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