End the confusion, Indah Water

Since the national sewerage services were privatised to Indah Water Konsortium (IWK) in 1994, there has been frequent reports in the local press regarding charges, extent of IWK's responsibilities and services and other comments from affected consumers, local authorities and concerned organisations.

This is one privatisation of services in Malaysia in which there appears to be no end to controversies, confusion and consumer dissatisfaction. The Government has attributed all these to the lack of publicity and explanation by IWK to the general public. However, in spite of the publicity and educational campaigns launched by IWK, consumers still remain unconvinced and are more confused than before.

Let us try to examine the root causes of all these confusion and outcry.

Consumers are fully aware that they have not specifically paid for sewerage services to local authorities before their privatisation. But they are also aware that the annual property assessments paid to local authorities are mainly for the maintenance of services such as roads, drainage, sewerage, street lighting, refuse collection, etc. With privatisation, the local authorities will now not be burdened with the maintenance of sewerage services. The consumers' expectation is that there should be a corresponding decrease in property assessments, or at least the rates should remain unchanged. On the contrary, many local authorities have increased property assessment rates and the affected consumers cannot help but feel short-changed.

One area where consumers are wary of IWK's undertaking in the upgrading and maintenance of sewerage services in areas taken over by IWK is their ability to carry out the works. Just by highlighting that IWK would lay 150,000 Km of sewers and construct 350 sewerage treatment works throughout the whole country is not at all convincing to the consumers. To the consumers, these may be just empty promises.

For each specific area taken over by IWK, it is important for IWK to identify problems pertaining to sewerage deficiencies, and put forward specific programmes of works to rectify these deficiencies and improve and upgrade the sewerage services. It is through concrete actions that IWK would be able to convince the public of their sincerity and commitment.

Many can still remember when KL City Hall implemented the KL Central Sewerage System in the 80s. The affected consumers were fully aware that charges for connection to the central sewerage system would be levied when the project was completed. There wasn't much hue and cry when the system was finally put into operation as the majority of the consumers were willing to contribute their share towards the improvement of sewage collection and treatment.

The above example clearly demonstrates that consumers are willing to pay for services actually rendered. Clever manoeuvres and lip services will not get the confidence and cooperation of the consumers.

When I was planning this letter, I wanted to take a look for myself what IWK had done since taking over the Petaling Jaya sewerage services more than a year ago. As I was familiar with the sewerage lifting station along Jalan 14/15 Petaling Jaya, I went there recently to take a first-hand look and to find out whether it was functioning.

In the mid-80s, I was involved as an engineering consultant for the construction of the bridge over Sg. Penchala along Jalan 14/15. The construction entailed the relocation of a sewerage lifting station, which was sited too close to the river and was in the way of the new construction. The purpose of this lifting station was to pump the incoming sewage to the other side of the river for treatment elsewhere.

When I visited this station I found that, besides a new IWK signboard and a new padlock, the fencing and the building looked neglected. The station was quiet and there weren't any sounds of pumps running.

It is obvious that if the pumps are not working, raw sewage would flood all the manholes and the whole system would be choked. Looking at the surrounding area, there were no signs that the sewerage system was not functioning. I immediately suspected that the raw sewage might have been diverted to somewhere else. The most convenient point of diversion was, of course, the river. Sure enough I found the discharge point located beside an existing open drain which discharged directly into Sg. Penchala. A yellowish coloured liquid was seen pouring out from a pipe which was connected to an old manhole.

It is ironical that, on the one hand, IWK have gone to great lengths preaching the significance of the proper treatment of sewage for health and the environment while on the other hand, they have allowed raw sewage to pollute the already over-polluted Sg. Penchala! Of all places, it has to happen in the midst of an urban and vibrant neighbourhood.

Just imagine, if the affected residents were aware of the current situation, would IWK expect them to pay willingly for the sewerage services? To add insult to injury, IWK have also intended to backdate the sewerage charges to some time in 1994!

The above is just one blatant example of IWK not practicing what they preach. Besides this, there is another major concern that casts doubts in the minds of the consumers -- the many apparent inconsistencies in policy and practices in this privatisation package.

We have noticed from press reports that IWK are only responsible for the maintenance of sewers and other appurtenances located outside the premises of properties connected to the sewerage system. This policy has been made very clear in IWK's refusal to attend to blockages within the premises of the properties concerned. One can appreciate this policy very well because one should be responsible to maintain one's own property and IWK have no right to encroach on one's property.

However, the above policy is apparently only applicable to properties that are connected to a central sewerage system. It is not applicable to those who have their own sewage treatment facilities, i.e. septic tanks.

It has been reported that for those with individual septic tanks, IWK would levy charges ranging from RM2-00 to RM10-00 per month and they plan to de-sludge those tanks once every two years.

Again, this policy is reported to be not applicable to those industrial properties who have their own treatment facilities. In these cases, IWK would not levy any charges. It looks like either the treatment facilities in industrial premises would not require any de-sludging.

The policy dealing with properties having their own treatment facilities is not only inconsistent but also unfair to those whose have individual septic tanks.

When maintenance of sewerage services was still under the jurisdiction of MPPJ, de-sludging of septic tanks was carried out by MPPJ free of charge. Accepting that the local authorities are now no longer responsible for de-sludging, do the residents have an option? Taking into consideration that septic tanks are their properties, the residents must be given a choice of whether to engage (and pay) either IWK or another company to de-sludge as and when necessary.

Assuming that the residents' hands are tied and have to allow IWK to encroach on their properties, have IWK already embarked on their proposed de-slugding programmes in PJ? Do IWK have adequate sludge treatment facilities to deal with the sludge? Previously, MPPJ used to send sludge removed from septic tanks for treatment in the Pantai Sewerage Works and it is believed.that IWK is currently doing the same. With IWK's proposed programmes of de-sludging, are the sludge treatment facilities at Pantai Treatment Works adequate to handle sludge from septic tanks from around KL and PJ? If the facilities at Pantai are not adequate, what do IWK intend to do, to discharge into rivers?

Besides de-sludging, which is part and parcel of the general maintenance of septic tanks, other maintenance services are required to ensure proper functioning of septic tanks. A common septic tank consists of a settling compartment in which sludge is formed and a filter bed. The settled sewage from the settling compartment passes through the filter before the effluent is finally discharged into the roadside drain. Sometimes, the filter gets choked and would require clearing and refurbishment. Does IWK's septic tank maintenance service extend to cover the filter beds as well? It would not be difficult to guess what IWK's reply would be.

In summary, it has been nearly two years since the national sewerage services have been privatised, and there still remains many questions that have not been satisfactorily answered. There are many grey areas that have not been thoroughly addressed and neither the Government nor IWK are able to come out with clear-cut solutions. Perhaps, this privatisation contract was conceived, signed and sealed in a rush. It may not be too late to review the whole concept of this privatisation scheme and to make it more transparent for the public to comprehend and to accept.

nakedeyeview.com.my 2008